Florida Highway Patrol dealing with trooper shortage

The number of speeding tickets issued by the Florida Highway Patrol has dropped for three straight years as the agency deals with a shortage of troopers.

Since 2010, the agency has lost 993 troopers - or about half of its workforce of 1,946 troopers, to retirement or resignations, the highway patrol's director Col. Gene Spaulding told the Miami Herald (http://hrld.us/2r3mN13 ).

"That's a big turnover," said Spaulding, a 24-year veteran of the agency. "That's really tough."

This spring, for example, Spaulding said the agency has 240 vacancies and the reinforcements aren't filling the void. The trooper academy typically has 80 recruits per class three times a year. He said the current class doesn't even have half of that number.

Meantime, Spaulding said the agency does what it can to provide public safety, patrolling areas that include Interstates 4, 75 and 95 and Florida's Turnpike in the nation's third most populated state that also doubles as a tourist destination.

The Herald cited low pay as a possible reason for high turnover. A starting trooper in Florida makes about $34,000, the same wage that's been in effect since 2005. In Mississippi, starting pay for a trooper is $38,000 and $47,000 in Louisiana.

It's been three years since the last pay raise for most of state law enforcement. The $82.4 billion budget passed this year by the Florida Legislature includes a 5 percent raise. Even so, the salaries will remain behind troopers in surrounding states. And, the Herald noted, local police and sheriff agencies are luring troopers with pay increases. In Miami-Dade County, for example, the starting salary is over $50,000.

"This is crisis," state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the newspaper. He's been advocating for two years for across-the-board pay raises for state workers.

Spaulding said response times for troopers are getting longer as the workload increases. In 2011, the state reported 229,000 crashes. In 2016, the number increased to 395,000 crashes. And the number of tickets written by troopers has dropped about 18 percent from 317,000 in 2011 to 258,000 in 2016.

Local governments are picking up the slack, said Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight, who spent 20 years working for the highway patrol. In 2008, for example, Knight said the sheriff's department worked 38 percent of the crashes in Sarasota County. Now it's up to 71 percent.

"It's not the fault of the highway patrol," Knight said, adding that the Legislature is not stepping up to take care of the highway patrol.