Op-ed by state Sen. Jim Brewster

The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association has posted bright flags warning of a potentially devastating trooper retirement tsunami looming just over the horizon. If the storm comes together and the retirement tidal wave hits, it would severely strain police resources, impair our ability to deal with domestic terrorism and dangerously compromise the safety and security of our citizens.

In media reports, the troopers’ association stated that 2,000 Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) troopers will become retirement-eligible within the next three years. These retirements – if they occur in bulk – will swell the current trooper deficit (417 vacancies below the 4,719 authorized complement) and create long-term staffing problems that will reverberate for a decade or more to come.

Recent trooper retirement statistics underscore the retirement trend at PSP: Over the last five years (2012-2016 inclusive) the PSP averaged 216 retirements. For the previous 5-year period, an average of 153 troopers retired.  So far this year, 226 troopers have retired.

More needs to be done to fill the ranks. An expedited recruitment and training program featuring a rapid succession of well-stocked cadet classes would solve the problem.  However, this approach costs money – and lots of it.

Assuming the accuracy of the retirement storm warning, the question is this: In an era of fiscal belt-tightening and partisanship that jeopardizes even consensus appropriation lines, is there bipartisan will to invest significant state resources as a down payment to address the problem?

While the governor and budget negotiators acted aggressively this year and added additional funding to the state spending plan to pay for three new cadet classes, these new troopers may only be a temporary supplicant.

Fewer troopers, greater responsibility and an ever-expanding coverage area have placed an incredible burden on the PSP. Troopers are being called on to patrol more communities and citizens every day.  When local municipalities disband their police or fail to organize, equip and support a local police force of their own, the state police are required to fill the policing void.

According to a Penn State study, the PSP provided full or part-time coverage to 67 percent of the state’s 2,562 municipalities.   In rural Pennsylvania, the study found that the state police accounted for 92 percent coverage, with most municipalities requiring full-time service.  The study concluded that the state police cover, either full or part time, 3,388,659 citizens per year, with that figure growing each year.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review completed an in-depth examination of PSP staffing from 2008-2014.  The review found that while the number of Pennsylvanians relying on state police increased, the number of officers assigned to regional stations for patrols declined 17 percent.  At three-quarters of the stations, staffing levels fell despite the addition of new troopers.

The state budget provided millions in additional funding to pay for training three new classes of troopers. However, given the exceedingly high cost to train each flight of 100 cadets, the expense of restocking the ranks is steep.

To compound the problem, legislators and transportation advocates have grown wary of diverting Motor License Fund dollars from road, bridge, mass transit and multimodal projects. In fact, the PSP road revenue spigot that is now wide open will soon be ratcheted-back as a result of the passage of new restrictions in the Fiscal Code (Act 85). Given this change, this future funding challenge must be addressed.

Lawmakers and the administration have an obligation to examine PSP staffing concerns and craft an aggressive, yet responsible and fiscally sound, approach to ensure that the safety and security needs of Pennsylvania’s citizens are met. Perhaps that means a greater investment from the state’s General Fund or forcing well-heeled municipalities that now rely exclusively on the PSP for police services to pay a reasonable fee for coverage they currently receive for free.

The retirement tsunami warning flags are flapping ominously. Let’s hope our policymakers pay heed.