Budget cuts would hurt Highway Patrol, further slow crime lab results
The Department of Public Safety this year is asking for additional troopers, but says it will prioritize increasing pay for current employees over the new hires.
Department Commissioner Lance Davenport said he is asking for money to give his Utah Highway Patrol troopers a pay increase for the first time since 2008. A new trooper is making as much money as a trooper who has been on the force for four years, he said. That hasn't sat well with troopers, some of whom have left the state law enforcement agency to join police forces that have regular pay raises, Davenport said.
"We've hired them, trained them and want to keep them," he told The Salt Lake Tribune after a committee meeting that looked at the department's budget. "We don't want to lose them to another agency for a $1 or $2 more an hour wage."
Davenport has asked for $675,000 to increase troopers' wages, and another $1 million to pay troopers for overtime work.
In addition, he has asked for about $1.4 million to hire new troopers. Currently, the Utah Highway Patrol employs about as many troopers as it did in the 1980s, despite a nearly three-fold increase in the number of cars on the state's roads.
In 2011, 21 troopers were hit while on duty on Utah's highways. Part of the reason for those accidents was a lack of troopers available to control traffic and warn motorists to slow down as they approach a trooper who has pulled over a driver, Davenport said.
"Our staffing level affects our ability to respond as quickly and places our people at greater risk," he said.
Another division in the Department of Public Safety that is facing strains because of budget cuts is the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services.
A huge influx of cases involving Spice has left lab workers struggling to keep up. A DNA expert has often been pulled off that duty to help identify Spice, but a prosecutor last week called to say he would lose a child rape case if he didn't get DNA test results back that week. A supervisor had to work all weekend to process the DNA.
"That's where we're walking fine line," he told legislators Friday in asking for $110,000 to hire a new Spice chemist.
Crime lab director Jay Henry also expressed concern about being able to process all of the ballistics evidence from the January Ogden shootout that left one police officer dead and five others wounded. The man who replaced the last firearm examiner is still working toward certification and has to send out his findings to other labs for verification. The department is asking for $100,000 to pay him more money so they don't lose him to another job.
"With any big case, it's going to be a challenge for us," Henry told The Tribune. "Years of budget cuts have caught up with us."