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Budget ax could fall on those who help state troopers, public

Florida Highway Patrol troopers are already busy on the interstates dealing with speeders, drunken drivers and fatal wrecks. Community service officers help them handle everything else.

They're not sworn officers and can't pull anyone over. But they wear uniforms, drive official vehicles, handle fender-benders, reroute traffic around accidents and help disabled motorists.

But their jobs are now endangered by more Tallahassee budget cutting.

This coming fiscal year, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles needs to cut $9 million out of its $393 million budget.

One proposal: save $1.4 million by laying off the community service officers who serve Hillsborough, Orange, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

"If they get rid of the program there's hardly going to be any traffic enforcement," said community service officer Toni Gugliotta.

That's because troopers will be stuck sorting out the minor crashes that the community service officers usually handle.

Department spokesman Dave Westberry cautioned that it's one of several measures his department has proposed. Much will depend on what the Florida Legislature decides during the session starting Tuesday.

"It's clearly a valuable program," Westberry said. "But we're balancing budget issues with public safety issues every day."

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, wonders if getting rid of the officers will actually save any money if it just forces more work onto troopers.

"They are short of dollars, they were asked to cut their budget," Fasano said. "What I want to know, though, in the long run is do we actually save state tax dollars by keeping them onboard?"

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the officers handled 10,520 crashes, gave out 7,296 citations and helped 6,082 motorists.

Even if they disappear, their workload won't, said William Smith Jr., president of the Highway Patrol chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association and a trooper in Miami.

The program was started in 1999 in the Tampa Bay area, and officers later were assigned to Orange County. The program has never expanded to elsewhere. It has 28 positions but only 22 are filled. Eight officers are working in Hillsborough and Pinellas, four in Orange and two in Pasco.

It's possible that the program could be reduced rather than eliminated. Westberry said the department will try to find jobs for anyone who loses a position.

Gugliotta, who is assigned to Pinellas County, doesn't know what she'll do if she's laid off. But she knows that eliminating their jobs will create a domino effect for troopers and the public alike.

"There's only 22 of us," she said, "but it impacts a lot of people."

Budget ax could fall on those who help state troopers, public 02/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 9:27pm]
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