Oklahoma budget cuts have state troopers waiting for lawbreakers to speed to them
Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Chantz Jackson never realized how many miles he drove each day until the Department of Public Safety limited his daily travel to 100 miles because of state budget cuts.
"You really didn't notice until they put you on the mileage restriction how bad it was," Jackson said.
After the mileage limit took effect in December to save the agency money, Jackson spends more time sitting in his patrol car, waiting for offenders to come to him, instead of the other way around.
"It keeps you from being free, driving around and being proactive," he said.
Before the mileage limit took effect, the Department of Public Safety estimates troopers averaged 150 to 200 miles a day. Cumulatively, they averaged about a million miles each month, and the agency budgeted about $3.8 million for fuel alone for the 2017 fiscal year.
More cuts ahead
The state Department of Public Safety is steeling itself for even further budget cuts next year as the Oklahoma Legislature looks at how to fill its estimated $900 million budget hole.
DPS Commissioner Michael Thompson said the agency may be forced to reduce basic services.
- Related to this story
- Video: Troopers' abilities impacted by limits (2017-03-17)
"It's important for people to know that it doesn't matter if the Oklahoma Highway Patrol has 200 people or 2,000, the highway patrol is going to do its best for Oklahoma, no matter what," Thompson said. "But when you have an overworked, under-resourced staff, there's only so much we can do."
Many state agencies already have reached a critical breaking point, said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.
"OHP troopers' ability to keep our roads safe would be further hampered by another large cut resulting in trooper furloughs and buyouts, a hiring freeze and reductions in the locations they cover," Zearley said.
Legislative leaders recently asked the Department of Public Safety to put together a "worst-case scenario" budget for the next fiscal year with a nearly 15 percent funding cut.
The resulting loss of about $13.3 million would mean the department would be forced to take 23 work furlough days for all of its employees, including state troopers, officials said. Layoffs also might be considered.
The department also would be forced to close as many as 24 driver's license testing sites across the state, meaning applicants could have to drive up to 100 miles to take a driving test. Public wait times also likely would increase.
“It's going to inconvenience the public a tremendous amount," Thompson said.
The funding cuts also would mean the Oklahoma Highway Patrol wouldn't be able to hold a trooper training academy until at least 2019. OHP now has 154 troopers under minimum manning requirements and about 26 percent of the department's troopers are eligible for retirement.
The number of Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers is now around 795, compared with the 825 troopers the state had in 1990, Thompson said.
In that time, the state has built four more turnpikes and grown its population by about a million people, he said.
"When you think about the enormous responsibility that we have and the things that we ask the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to do on our behalf, to have a force this small is incredibly alarming," Thompson said.
The mileage limit was just one of many difficult decisions the department has had to make when looking at ways to save money, he said.
"Our troopers don't like it and I don't like it," Thompson said.
The decision came down to either limiting trooper mileage or resorting to work furloughs, he said.
Patrolling Oklahoma County's hundreds of miles of highways and turnpikes can take Jackson from one side of the county to the other in a day, responding to accidents and enforcing traffic laws.
On any given day, it's a given that Jackson will respond to at least two or three wrecks — double that if the weather is bad.
One winter day when the roads were icy, Jackson responded to six wrecks, including one fatality collision.
Taking one person to the Oklahoma County jail off Interstate 40, back to his troop headquarters off Interstate 240 and back can squander half of his allotted mileage for the day. The limit is actually 100 miles per day, or 500 miles a week.
Jackson tries to stay in one spot longer to catch speeders or other violators so he can conserve his miles.
"It kind of just keeps you sitting there looking for people who are breaking the law instead of you going and finding them," Jackson said.
Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›