COLUMBIA - Rural-based highway patrol troopers likely would be the last to go if severe budget cuts are handed down, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety said Wednesday.
Attorney General Charlie Condon jumped the gun earlier this week when he urged Gov. Jim Hodges to make the agency keep troopers, even if other employees have to go in a tight budget year, Public Safety spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said. Mr. Condon said the agency should be told to reduce its budget without putting veteran troopers out of work or rural county troopers out of reach.
He said a projected layoff by the Department of Public Safety of between 100 and 200 troopers would "threaten the safety of our roads."
"If this plan is implemented, the less-metropolitan areas of the state will be hit the hardest and treated the worst," Mr. Condon said. "Every county in the state is entitled to a strong trooper presence, but under this plan, some areas are severely shortchanged. When you add in the layoffs of experienced troopers, the whole thing is a public safety nightmare."
But Ms. Iacobelli said the attorney general based his comments on an internal, "hypothetical" Highway Patrol Division Reorganization Plan for 2001 that was leaked from inside the agency.
"That's Charlie Condon's spin on it. We've never said we would lay off road troopers. No official report like that exists," she said. "So, that was just one of many budget scenarios. We won't know until we get those final figures from the state budget what we'll do exactly, because we won't know how much of a cut we'll take."
If the agency's budget is cut 10 to 15 percent - up to $11 million - as predicted, there will be a reduction in force. But officials say that in order to meet their commitment to protect state roads, full-time administrative positions will be eliminated and those troopers will be transferred to road duty.
"They're doing everything they can to preserve the number of road troopers," Ms. Iacobelli said. "That would be the last position we would cut."
Edgefield County Magistrate Brenda Carpenter said her rural county couldn't stand to lose any troopers.
"The impact (layoffs) would bring upon the highways of a rural county, such as ours, is frightening," the magistrate said. "Those troopers bring in a number of DUIs and people speeding. If they take the troopers away, the highways are going to be open for it."
About 175 of the department's 2,500 employees - including law enforcement officers, clerks and administrators - received letters at the end of April warning them that if the budget is severely cut, they could lose their jobs effective July 1.
To reduce the number of layoffs, the Department of Public Safety is urging eligible people to take early retirement. Of the 279 who qualify, more than 70 employees already have signed up, Ms. Iacobelli said.
Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.