TOPEKA — The Kansas Highway Patrol and Kansas Bureau of Investigation searched Monday for creative sources of funding to hire staff to cover 35 counties without an assigned trooper, as well as to add criminal investigators to meet requests for aid from local law enforcement agencies.
KHP Superintendent Mark Bruce, aware of lagging state tax revenue and associated budget problems, proposed an increase in Kansas’ vehicle title fee from $10 to $17.50. Extra fees collected under the proposal would be earmarked to hire 75 KHP troopers to increase service to one-third of counties without an assigned trooper.
The KBI has 20 job openings for criminal investigators and has struggled to retain skilled forensic scientists who complete training and take positions elsewhere with more lucrative pay scales, said KBI Director Kirk Thompson.
“It’s a matter of being able to accomplish our mission and provide services most of the public expects,” Thompson said in an interview. “We are in a position to take fewer and fewer requests for assistance. We have turned down a significant number of cases.”
Thompson said the agency hadn’t formulated a proposal to secure more state tax dollars to hire agents. He said the KBI had money in the budget to bring on more than the five agents added in the past year, but recruiting has proven challenging because the pool is limited to experienced law enforcement officers with considerable investigative knowledge.
Gov. Sam Brownback, as well as Republican and Democratic lawmakers, typically is keen to invest in public safety as a core function of government, but there is uncertainty this session where the state would come up with cash to bolster hiring or retention. In the 2016 session, legislators and Brownback need to identify $175 million to $190 million in revenue increases or spending reductions to balance the current and next fiscal year budgets.
“We’re having trouble hiring highway patrol,” Brownback said. “We’ve got a salary package. We need to increase it.”
The governor said part of the state’s personnel problem was related to the improving economy, which gave state law enforcement officers more career options.
In 2006, the KHP had 501 troopers stationed throughout Kansas. The number declined to 419 because of noncompetitive salaries, morale issues, a wave of retirements and weak recruiting for the academy. In recent years, the state adopted salary and retirement programs to retain veteran members of the force.
“Overall effectiveness of the patrol in performing our mission and our ability to support the local law enforcement community in Kansas has been negatively impacted,” Bruce said in a letter to legislators.
KHP personnel have posted two troopers in 40 counties, one trooper in 30 counties and none in 35 counties. KHP is spread thin in western counties, with staff concentrated in urban counties. The counties of Shawnee, Jefferson and Douglas have two troopers. Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties have a lone trooper, while Jackson and Osage counties have none.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the Kansas Department of Corrections and the state hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie had obstacles in filling job positions in a manner similar to the KHP and KBI.
“It’s a clear indication about how badly understaffed they are,” Hensley said. “The reason these important agencies are understaffed is Sam Brownback’s tax policy.”
Hensley and other critics blame Brownback and Republican lawmakers for eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue by exempting 330,000 business owners from the state income tax and by aggressively reducing individual income tax rates. Deficits that followed introduction of those tax changes prompted budget reductions, borrowing from other agency accounts and raises in the state’s sales tax.
“Public safety is a priority,” said Sen. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, “but local law enforcement appears to have it under control.”
Drawing more from the state’s general fund at this time might not be a feasible solution to staffing shortages at these state agencies, said Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita.
“We have a lot of needs or demands, and we’re not growing at the rate we need to in population and jobs,” he said.