It costs taxpayers some $90,000 to keep a Michigan State Trooper on the payroll for a year. This is not the "take home" pay of officers, but the total compensation cost incurred by their employer, including benefits and the state’s share of mandated taxes and fees. In contrast, county sheriff deputies cost taxpayers less than $70,000 a year in most places – often much less.
The next time you see a Michigan State Police trooper ticketing speeders on a major highway, ask yourself this question: Why is this routine traffic safety enforcement action being performed by a $90,000 state trooper, rather than a $70,000 (or less) county sheriff deputy?
The answer essentially boils down to "that’s how we’ve always done it." However, there are some $65 million worth of reasons to change the current arrangement: That is how much the state could save by handing over highway traffic enforcement to county sheriffs without reducing the amount of road patrol activity.
Michigan faces a serious revenue shortfall in next year’s budget. Gov. Jennifer Granholm is to be commended for proposing to close much of the gap with spending cuts. During her campaign the governor also promised "outside the box" solutions. Devolving traffic enforcement to lower levels of government is one that should be pursued.
The Michigan State Police provides many law enforcement services which local and county agencies cannot provide as well. Among these are forensic science and lab services, criminal databases, special operations including canine and underwater units, bomb squads, and more. The State Police also perform multi-jurisdictional and large-scale criminal investigations. Because it serves the entire state and benefits from such economies of scale, it is logical for the department to continue providing these special functions as a backup to local police.
However, it is not logical to divert expensive State Police resources to functions local agencies are eminently capable of performing at much lower cost. Routine traffic enforcement is one of these.
Make no mistake: Sheriff deputies and municipal police in Michigan are extremely professional and well trained. One of the functions performed by the State Police is to set standards and certify law enforcement training programs for all local peace officers. Some $11 million is spent each year to do so, and to provide in-service training for local police. Lack of competence or training is not an obstacle to sheriff departments performing highway patrols.
So how do we begin saving taxpayers $65 million a year? The "Uniform Services" line item accounts for 40 percent of the annual $410 million State Police budget. The lion’s share of this pays for road patrols. If that function was transferred out of the department, other overhead expenses could be cut in proportion and the entire department could be downsized by as much as $195 million.
The average cost statewide to employ a county sheriff deputy is approximately 77 percent (or less) of the cost of a state trooper. Therefore, the state could give grants to sheriff departments equivalent to 77 percent of the amount it currently spends for road patrols, or $128 million. This would allow sheriff departments to hire more deputies, and also boost their overhead to support the expanded operations. The grants would be conditional: Sheriffs must provide the same amount of major highway road patrols as currently provided by the State Police.
The difference between the cost of these grants and leaving road patrols with the State Police is $65 million per year. Taxpayers would realize these savings, and would still have the same number of well trained police patrolling Michigan’s highways. Given a large number of state trooper retirements expected in the next few years, now is a good time to begin the transition.
To maintain State Police trooper levels and other functions despite revenue shortfalls, Gov. Granholm is proposing a $12 increase in drivers license renewal fees, and new fees on the property insurance bills of homeowners. These "revenue enhancements" can provide the state more cash, but they may not be necessary if the state just spent the money it has more wisely. Allowing local law enforcement departments to perform routine traffic safety patrols on major highways is a better solution for Michigan motorists and taxpayers.
Jack McHugh is a legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and project manager for MichiganVotes.org, a web-driven legislative database operated as a public service by the Mackinac Center.