By John Celock
Kansas state troopers are one signature away from a new pension program that advocates say is one way to address the shortage of troopers in the state.
The state House of Representatives voted 97-22 Friday to pass a pension package that included creating a four-year pilot program creating the Deferred Retirement Options Program for the Kansas Highway Patrol. The plan, which would give incentives for troopers to work several years longer, is described as part of a plan to address the 100 trooper shortage in the state. DROP has been part of a multi-part plan to address the trooper shortage, which also includes a proposal to raise trooper pay. The bill now heads to Gov. Sam Brownback (R) for his signature or veto.
“It will help keep people on the road as we fill up our ranks,” Captain Josh Kellerman, KHP spokesman told The Celock Report.
The DROP legislation was included in a larger pension package addressing state employees working after retirement.
Under the plan, Kansas troopers will be able to retire but then remain in the Highway Patrol for between three and five years. During the additional years with KHP, the pension payments for the troopers would be deposited in a DROP account, where it would earn interest. The funds would then be given to the trooper when they leave KHP and they would begin to receive their pensions. Similar programs are used in Omaha, Neb. and other states.
Advocates, which include the Kansas Troopers Association, say that the bill would allow for experienced troopers to remain with the Highway Patrol to help train new troopers and maintain a larger agency. DROP would provide a financial incentive to stay for several years.
Kellerman said that 25 cadets are about to enter the state trooper academy and completed agility and fitness testing earlier this week.
The Kansas Highway Patrol has been trying to address the growing trooper shortage, which includes being down 100 statewide with another 50 being eligible for retirement this year. KHP Superintendent Col. Mark Bruce has made DROP part of his three part legislative agenda to address the recruitment and retention issue this year. The other issues including more of a focus on recruitment and a new pay plan in order to raise trooper salaries. Starting troopers make $20.53 an hour, which can rise to $23.78 an hour after five years and then plateau. KHP has seen troopers leaving to either work at local police departments or move to other states with higher trooper salaries.
The pay raise plan is currently pending as part of the state legislative budget process. The state House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee has passed the plan, which would be funded from funds out of the civil asset forfeiture account and other accounts in the state. The plan though has met resistance in the Senate and has been placed in limbo in recent weeks as part of the ongoing budget negotiations. The Celock Report has learned, however, that the plan has regained momentum in recent days.
House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) praised the passage of DROP and noted that it is needed to address the recruitment and retention issue, which he described as “urgent.”
“In areas of need where we are looking to retain qualified employees this could be the model for other agencies if it meets our goals,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “Combined with a new rank and pay program and the study of merger with the KBI, we can create an agency where those entering the Training Academy in Salina see a career path with an agency that has competitive pay and an incentive to remain with the agency for a lifelong career.”
Late last month, Claeys proposed a studying a potential merger between KHP and KBI into a state police, which he said would provide a larger career path for state troopers. Claeys’ proposal received opposition from state Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R), who controls KBI. Schmidt told The Celock Report last month that removing KBI from the attorney general’s office “would be contrary to the interests of public safety and would be a mistake.”
Kellerman said at the time that KHP would leave discussions over a proposed merger to lawmakers and Brownback. Brownback’s office did not comment on the proposal at the time.
House Pensions and Benefits Committee Chairman Steven Johnson (R-Assaria) told The Celock Report that questions he had with regards to the costs of the program have been addressed by Bruce, who assured that it would be small. Johnson said that the trooper shortage issue needed to be addressed either through the retention program or an increased focus on recruitment.
“This gives us a tool to see if it helps retention,” he said. “With a pilot we can see if it is effective for our employees.”
Johnson said he wants to monitor the data from the DROP program within KHP and see the impact during the four-year pilot period. He said it is possible the program could be expanded to more police and fire departments around the state depending on its effectiveness. He did say that he would want to see if DROP is causing more early retirements, which has been an issue lawmakers have been looking to address.
Johnson said that he favors the pay plan in order to address the recruitment issues with the Highway Patrol. He said that he wants to see the pay plan adopted as part of the recruitment issue. But Johnson noted that the current situation with the Highway Patrol requires a multi-pronged strategy.
“Right now we need to focus everywhere you can,” Johnson said.