- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A Missouri lawmaker’s proposal to undo the 5-year-old merger of the state’s Highway Patrol and Water Patrol is being applauded by local officials who say law enforcement presence on the state’s waterways has been drastically reduced since the 2011 move.

But the measure is facing stiff opposition from Gov. Jay Nixon, who initially promoted the merger as a way to save taxpayer money.

Stone County Commissioner Jerry Dodd said he continues to hear complaints from residents and business owners about fewer troopers on Table Rock Lake, where some party spots are getting new life because of a lack of law enforcement, The Kansas City Star (bit.ly/1QLcWXK) reported.

“Times change, and I understand that,” said Dodd, who has been a commissioner for 16 years. “But I feel the lake was a safer place when they had the Water Patrol by itself.”

Several lawmakers whose districts include the state’s most popular waterways have questioned the merger, saying that instead of seeing more troopers and resources, they see less.

Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican, filed a bill last month to dismantle the merger and has spent the weeks since then talking with other lawmakers, residents and patrol commanders.

“There has to be someone in authority whose priority is the water,” she said after she filed the bill.

The number of arrests for drunken boating has fallen by 61 percent since the merger in January 2011, according to the Highway Patrol. There were 344 such arrests in 2010 but only 134 last year.

Franklin’s proposal isn’t popular with some in Jefferson City, including the governor, who called the merger a success even though it’s costing the state as much as $900,000 more each year.

A special House committee that analyzed the merger released a final report last year outlining several recommendations for the patrol to correct flaws created by the merger. Among them was increased training for troopers who work the water.

Training became a focal point after the May 31, 2014, death of Brandon Ellingson, a 20-year-old Iowa man who was pulled over on the Lake of the Ozarks for suspicion of boating while intoxicated.

Anthony Piercy, who had been a highway trooper for 18 years, volunteered to help out on the lake after the merger. He cuffed Ellingson’s hands behind his back and placed a type of life vest on Ellingson that could not be secured for someone in handcuffs, according to investigators.

Ellingson fell out of Piercy’s boat as the trooper transported him to a patrol field office at speeds of up to 46 mph. Ellingson’s life vest came off and he drowned.

During a coroner’s inquest in September 2014, Piercy told jurors he hadn’t been trained for what he encountered that day. The Star later learned that he had only two days of field training before he was cleared to work the water.

Johnnie Burns, whose father runs NRO Canoe Rental near Bennett Spring State Park, said it was too late to reverse the merger.

“If you start all over, who are you really going to start with?” Burns said. “We’d be vulnerable for the first three or four years. . I was never for the change, but it changed and now we’ve settled down with what we got. Why change it again?”

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Information from: The Kansas City Star, https://www.kcstar.com

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