By Jim Leusner
The Orlando Sentinel
ORLANDO, Fla. — As a boy, Jim Whitman admired the "mystique" of the Florida Highway Patrol trooper, a man driving alone who could handle any situation. After a ride-along with a trooper friend in 1992, he quit his job as a bus driver and joined.
But after nearly 10 years of patrolling the six counties around Orlando - and frustrated with the shortage of troopers and low pay - he quit the FHP and joined the Winter Park Police Department in 2004. He immediately got a $5,000 pay raise, guaranteed overtime and merit and cost-of-living increases.
"I loved being a trooper," he said. "But when it comes to making a decision for your family, you have to do what's best for a family."
Whitman is one in a steady stream of troopers who have left over the years to take higher-paying jobs with other police agencies. Since the deadly 70-vehicle pileup on Interstate 4 in Polk County on Jan. 9, several law-enforcement officials and legislators are questioning whether FHP staffing is a public-safety issue.
Only two troopers were patrolling 2,010-square-mile Polk County, an area about the size of Delaware, when the early-morning accidents occurred in heavy fog. Five people were killed. Both troopers had been working crashes off the interstate, including the one assigned to serve as "lookout" for visibility problems because of a nearby brush fire and a fog warning.
Speeding, not staffing?
Ed Hotaling, a trooper for 33 years and veteran traffic-homicide investigator who retired in 2006, said Polk County was understaffed like many other parts of the state.
"Do I think they should have had more people out there?" asked Hotaling, a former FHP union president. "Sure. But if you don't have them, you can't put them out there. ... They put out all they had to put out."
FHP's new director, Col. John Czernis, said Mother Nature and speeding drivers caused the accidents. Florida Department of Transportation officials placed fog- and smoke-warning signs in the area, and FHP patrolled it for much of the night without seeing any problems, he said.
"There's not much you can do about the weather," Czernis said.
But stabilizing the work force and getting better pay for his 1,600 officers - especially the 1,194 frontline troopers - is his top priority.
"We have got to fill and maintain our positions," Czernis said. "We are barely keeping up with attrition."
Working against him is a possible $2 billion state budget shortfall for 2008-09. FHP pay raises and cost-of-living increases depend on the Legislature. And those are hard to come by in tough budget years.
FHP has 186 trooper vacancies statewide. FHP officials deny that staffing is causing a safety issue, but not everyone is so sure.
"Over the past eight or nine years, all we hear is you got to do more with less," said one longtime trooper, who has worked in several counties in the state. "It's affecting the safety of the motoring public and the troopers themselves. You may not have a trooper for a backup for 60 to 70 miles."
Base pay for new troopers is $33,977, according to FHP. And that's lower than many other police agencies in Florida.
Among the 45 states that provided data to Policepay.net for a 2003 survey, FHP paid its troopers the least.
"If you fix the pay, you fix the retention and recruitment problem," said Bill Smith, president of the FHP chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents 1,460 troopers, corporals and sergeants. "If you want to see true, dedicated employees, come to the highway patrol. They aren't doing it for the pay."
Smith and other troopers said every FHP district in the state has lost positions to budget cuts. Miami-Dade County, for instance, has 103 troopers today, down from 250 in 1984, Smith said. Other counties, such as Brevard, remain at staffing levels from the 1970s, he said.
Meanwhile, Florida's population has swelled to 18.7 million people with 84 million annual visitors, and the number of vehicles and new roads increases annually. The agency has primary responsibility for more than 12,000 miles of interstates, toll roads and other state highways and 71,000 miles of secondary roads.
In fiscal year 2006-07, according to FHP, the agency made 381,800 speeding arrests, 10,814 drunken-driving arrests, worked nearly 231,000 crashes and patrolled more than 31.6 million miles.
Still, some wonder whether lives could have been saved in the Polk County accidents if more troopers had been working.
"The more police officers you have on the road, the safer the road," said state Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-Lake Worth, who fought FHP budget cuts last fall. "When you drive past a police officer [trooper] on a highway, you immediately slow down. As a taxpayer, I'm willing to pay for more troopers."
Looking for raises
Czernis has asked the state for an additional $6.9 million in next year's budget to give troopers a $500 increase for each year on the job, with a maximum of $5,000.
The PBA is backing Senate Bill 920, which would add $10 and $15 surcharges to the reinstatement fees for suspended and revoked driver's licenses to help boost FHP salaries.
For now, the agency must compete with better-paying city and county police agencies. New cities such as Miami Gardens and Doral offer signing bonuses, incentives or salaries up to $12,000 more.
For now, troopers hope the Legislature will help them.
"I have nothing but respect for those guys who are doing the job," Whitman said. "They do it for the love of the job and for the love of the agency. It's going to take a major legislator's family member to be involved in a tragic accident before they do something for troopers."
Copyright 2008 The Orlando Sentinel
Many Fla. troopers leaving for higher pay