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OSP cut to the bone

State police leaders say budget reductions have pinched trooper responses; some contend highway safety loses out

Oregon State Police Superintendent Ron Ruecker says his agency has been stuck in reverse for 24 years, traveling downhill on what he calls a budget roller coaster.

Where she stops, nobody seems to know. But one thing is clear ' Ruecker's getting sick of the ride.

With nearly 30 years of OSP experience under his belt, Ruecker became accustomed to seeing his ranks thinned little by little every time the Legislature convened to decide a state budget. But when voters rejected Measure 28 in early 2003 and state police were forced to lay off 129 patrol troopers and 157 other staff members, he said it drastically changed the way the agency does business. And some in OSP say the state's highways are more dangerous because of it.

That flat represented a dismantling of state police, Ruecker said. That was a very dramatic thing for us that crippled our organization.

Lt. Kurt Barthel, who supervises criminal investigations at OSP's Southern Regional Headquarters in Central Point, handed out 12 layoff slips in the aftermath of Measure 28's failure.

— Barthel said that when he joined the office in 1978, 45 troopers were employed here. Now, fewer than 50 troopers on various shifts patrol highways and interstates from two offices in Southern Oregon, which includes everything south of Eugene, he said.

In 1979, we'd have four to six people working every shift, Barthel said. Now, there's one or two. One (per shift) is very common.

And on a Sunday evening in late July, when five people died in a two-car wreck on Highway 140 near Fish Lake, zero patrol troopers from the Central Point and Klamath Falls offices were on the road. A sergeant from each station responded to the accident, which occurred along a dangerous and busy stretch of road that Barthel says needs constant patrols.

Nowadays, we need to depend on other agencies, he said. Numerically, we've been humbled, to say the least.

To put it plainly: In 1980, 665 OSP troopers patrolled the state's highways. Currently, fewer than 300 are expected to cover about 7,500 miles of road. A group of new hires announced Friday to fill vacancies will push the current force to more than 300 troopers early next year.

That's not anywhere near where we need to be, said Ruecker.

Overall, fatalities on Oregon roads in 2003 increased by 17 percent from 2002, while the national average was the lowest ever recorded, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Ruecker won't say he believes the increase in Oregon's traffic deaths is a direct result of OSP patrol layoffs.

But it's a connection Oregon State Police Officers' Association President Dan Swift has no problem making.

It's absolutely because of (the layoffs), Swift said. Enforcement has been decreased, and when there are fewer patrols on the road ... fatalities are going to go up.

Statistics provided by OSP Lt. Glenn Chastain paint a clear picture that dangerous drivers are safer than ever on the state's highways and interstates. The number of total citations issued by patrol troopers dropped by more than 30,000 in 2003 from the year before. In 2002, OSP arrested nearly 5,700 intoxicated drivers; in 2003, the number was less than 4,700.

No one likes to see a police officer until they need one, says state Sen. Sal Esquivel of Medford, one of several Southern Oregon legislators endorsed by the OSPOA, the troopers' labor union. Esquivel is the GOP's candidate for Medford Rep. Rob Patridge's state House seat in November.

Esquivel said he got a first-hand look at the condition of Oregon highway patrols when he was headed back into the Rogue Valley after one of many trips to Salem earlier this year. He was well north of Grants Pass when he called 9-1-1 one night after realizing a truck in front of him was pulling a trailer without taillights, creating an obvious traffic danger on the freeway. A trooper finally stopped the truck in Phoenix, more than 40 miles later.

We had no one on patrol in two counties, the Medford Republican said. That's not up to snuff.

Esquivel predicts that once again, legislators will be faced with tough decisions when they return to Salem to piece together a budget for the 2005-07 biennium. Still, he wants to figure out a way to return patrols to an adequate level, which he said would be at least as many as were on duty in 1980. He says the best way to do that would be to dedicate funding for the agency, rather than dipping further into the state's general fund, which must be used to pay for education, social services and other programs.

Last year, Patridge, a Republican, proposed raising auto insurance rates in order to pay for added OSP patrols. Patridge is pursuing a career as an attorney working for Pacific Retirement Services in Medford and did not seek re-election this year.

State Rep. Dennis Richardson of Central Point said he would support a statewide gas tax to establish a dedicated funding source for OSP.

I believe our priorities need to start with public safety, said Richardson, also a Republican. Partisan politics have had too much power in Salem ... (and) I am afraid there's not the political will to make that change.

Ruecker agrees that dedicated funding would be the answer to stabilizing OSP staffing levels.

We've been going backwards for 24 years, since we've been in the general fund, he said. There needs to be a way to stabilize our level of funding, whatever that level is. We can't subject our employees to this budget rollercoaster.

Ruecker says studies have shown that Oregon should have more than 700 troopers patrolling the highways. But in the short-term, his goal is to convince lawmakers to restore the patrol level to what it was in 1980, when there were 665 authorized positions.

Coverage has been stretched so thin that none of OSP's offices have operated around-the-clock patrols since February 2003. In the Central Point office, there are no on-duty patrol troopers for two hours each day.

Since the Measure 28 cutbacks, the agency has been forced to resort to alternate methods of enforcement.

OSP instituted its Aggressive Driving Enforcement Plan in July, which relies on troopers in unmarked vehicles working to reduce incidents of road rage. Last year, limited resources prevented troopers from responding to about 34,000 aggressive-driving complaints, Ruecker said.

And this weekend, OSP is using federal grants to pay for increased highway coverage over the Labor Day holiday. Every single detective and patrol trooper in the Central Point office is working at least one shift this weekend, Barthel said.

On the bright side, OSP swore in 34 new recruits on Friday, to fill vacancies created through recent retirements and resignations. If all goes as planned, Ruecker hopes to have them on the road by early next year, which would bring the total number of patrol troopers to near 329, the maximum level currently authorized by the Legislature.

Things are getting better, but you're not going to hear me say things are good until something dramatic happens to our funding base, Ruecker said. Even with (the new recruits), the agency is still pathetically understaffed.

Oregon State Police Lt. Kurt Barthel?s locker is at the end of a long line of mostly empty ones at OSP?s Central Point office. The OSP has been hit by 24 years of budget cuts that have left the agency with fewer than half the troopers it had in 1980. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell