- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

RICHMOND With the state's largest public safety force struggling to bolster its ranks to its optimum strength, Gov. Mark R. Warner and legislative budget writers face a difficult choice about whether to exempt the state police from deep cuts and layoffs.

Mr. Warner told shocked House and Senate money committee members Monday that state revenues are $1.5 billion short of budgeted needs for the current two-year budget a fiscal crisis that could force agency cuts as deep as 15 percent and makes layoffs certain.

With the Virginia State Police 150 sworn officers short of its authorized number of about 1,800, Mr. Warner has to decide whether to allow the department to double its recruitment, hiring and training academy classes through next year.

Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax County Republican and head of the House Appropriations Committee, said the worst state revenue drought on record means nothing can be exempt from potential cuts.

"Everything has to be on the table. I don't know what the governor is going to do or what federal funds may come along to help, but he has to consider [cuts to] the state police just like everything else," Mr. Callahan said.

Mr. Warner is mindful of the demand for security nearly a year after terrorists struck on Virginia soil at the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center in New York, said his press secretary, Ellen Qualls.

"Public safety, especially the Virginia State Police and especially their efforts on the anti-terrorism front, is going to be on the top priority list of funding to preserve," Miss Qualls said.

The agency had already begun to lose officers to better-paying jobs before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, many have been hired away as part of the federal government's effort to bolster national security.

Lt. Col. Donald Martin, deputy superintendent of the state police, said the federal sky marshal's project was among the better-paying options enticing bright, young troopers.

The state starts rookie troopers out at slightly more than $29,000 a year while master troopers with 30 years of experience earn slightly more than $50,000 a year, said Corinne Geller, the state police spokeswoman.

"Right now, we're trying to get ahead of the game," Col. Martin said. "The skills of a highly trained trooper are very much in demand today."

Putting new troopers on the job is an exacting and lengthy process involving recruiting, testing and training. The department's rigorous preparatory classes at its academy in Richmond usually yield about 50 new troopers per session.

The General Assembly appropriated money this year to double up on academy classes through 2003, producing an additional 150 officers.

"We are in a rather aggressive stage of training to try to get as many troopers in the field as we can," Col. Martin said. "We have to hire them and train them, which is costly and takes a considerable amount of time."

The public has not seen a reduction in traffic law enforcement or crime fighting, because officers have been working overtime to help cover the gaps, Col. Martin said.

Some officers are working additional hours to provide security at the Pentagon and at Northern Virginia's two major airports, Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National. The overtime pay comes from federal and other sources, and the work is voluntary, Col. Martin said.

Being spread so thin, however, does exact a toll, he said.

"It's not putting the public at risk, but all those hours do put a strain on our troopers," Col. Martin said.

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