IN THE REGION — Beginning in fiscal year 2020, the state will pick up 50 percent of the fringe benefit costs of resident state troopers, allowing small towns dependent on the program to limit further cost increases.
“Small towns are thrilled that the budget addresses longstanding concerns regarding the Resident State Trooper program, which is critical to protecting public safety in the state’s smaller towns,” said Betsy Gara, the executive director of Connecticut’s Council of Small Towns (COST). “Unfortunately, costs for the program were increasing every year, in large part due to outrageous fringe benefit costs. The budget requires the state to pick up 50 percent of the fringe benefit costs, which will help keep the program affordable.”
Currently, 53 towns across the state participate in the resident state trooper program – meaning that at least one state trooper serves as law enforcement in the town, according to the Connecticut State Police. Another 26 towns fall under the jurisdiction of a regional state trooper barracks. Just one town – East Lyme – has opted out of the program in the past three years.
But growing costs have become an issue in recent years for towns participating in the program. In southeastern Connecticut that includes Westbrook, Old Lyme, North Stonington, Montville, Killingworth, Haddam, Essex, East Haddam, Chester and Deep River.
Prior to 2014, participating towns paid 70 percent of a trooper salary. Since 2014, towns with a resident state trooper pay 85 percent of a trooper’s salary, and 100 percent of fringe benefit costs, including health care and pension.
“The fringe benefit cost issue has been troubling over the years because it included costs associated with the state’s unfunded pension liability,” Gara said. “The costs were increasing at such an alarming rate that it was making the program unaffordable.”
During the 2017 budget session, a proposal to shift 100 percent of the salary costs onto participating towns led many to testify at the state capitol about the importance of the program and the need to rein in cost increases that would lead to higher property taxes.
Local leaders impressed upon state legislators that higher costs would lead many towns to discontinue the program, a move that could saddle state government with an even larger share of the costs. According to Gara, some towns have considered regionalized police forces as an alternative to the program, but none have done so.
Currently, the resident state trooper program provides cost-sharing benefits to both the state and municipalities. Towns that participate in the program can avoid the need for a lockup cell, an evidence room, and the accompanying administrative staff. Freedom of information requests can also be handled by state troopers, relieving a significant burden for small and mid-sized municipalities, explained Lt. Robert Palmer, the commanding officer of Troop C in Tolland. “The overarching infrastructure is managed by the state police,” said Palmer.
The program is designed to be flexible for towns. In Old Lyme, a resident state trooper also serves as chief of police, supervising a staff of full-time and part-time police officers. In Mansfield, the town’s police force consists entirely of seven state troopers. Very small towns can employ one state trooper or even share the costs and services a state trooper with a neighboring town.
The program makes a lot of sense for small towns, where the cost of replacing a vehicle and purchasing new equipment can have an outsized affect on a budget, said Gara. “We need to make sure it remains a reliable, viable option for towns.”