Senate approves more troopers

John Mccarthy and John Mccarthy

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state Senate found a way to hire 50 more State Highway Patrol troopers to help cut overtime costs and provide more protection while Ohio is under a heightened security status, backers of the plan said yesterday.

The Senate authorized transferring $10 million from a program to beautify Ohio’s highway rest areas to the patrol as part of the two-year transportation budget the Senate approved yesterday.

The patrol will be able to start hiring the troopers after July 1. The additional troopers would be stationed at the Statehouse and other government buildings and at truck scales along Ohio’s highways to inspect for dangerous cargo, patrol spokesman Lt. Rick Fambro said.

Since the state’s five-level alert system was adopted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the patrol has increased staffing at state buildings. While the state is under an “orange alert” — its second-highest ranking indicating an elevated risk of terrorist activity — the patrol is spending about $34,000 a day. That cost includes the patrol’s regular operating expenses plus overtime and keeping highway truck scales open around the clock. During a 20-day orange alert in February, the patrol spent $680,000, Fambro said.

Senate Republicans felt the patrol could use the extra troopers, said Sen. Jeffry Armbruster, the chairman of the Highways ‘ Transportation Committee. The patrol now has about 1,400 officers.

Since the patrol might not be able to fill all 50 positions right away, the bill allows some leeway for spending the money as new troopers can be recruited, Armbruster said.

That leeway is necessary because the bill requires that the patrol’s budget eventually be funded by fees collected for vehicle registrations and driver’s licenses, instead of being drawn from the gas tax, as it is now, he said.

The gas tax is a more reliable source of funding than registration and license fees will be, and the patrol will have to track its spending more carefully, said Armbruster, a North Ridgeville Republican.

“They are going to have to look at their budget because they don’t have the flexibility that they used to,” he said.

Fambro said the plan will make the patrol better prepared and more vigilant during elevated alerts, especially at truck scales. “We’re looking and we’re trying to do our best to intercept anything that could be used in a biological- or chemical-related attack,” Fambro said.

House Speaker Larry Householder said while the new troopers are important, he wonders whether the patrol is taking on too many duties it hasn’t performed in the past. “There are concerns. They are not a state police. They are a highway patrol,” said Householder, a Glenford Republican. “I think it’s worth having discussions about what their role should be.”