Friday, February 08, 2013
Riverboat gamble: Steve McCraw is betting on border security
The reason DPS can't fill its cadet classes, said Col. McCraw, is primarily low pay compared to urban Texas jurisdictions. Sen. John Whitmire grilled him regarding whether there were other ways to reduce those vacancies besides raising trooper pay by $52.9 million, which is the first item on the agency's budget wish list. McCraw insisted "no," nothing else would do it. In addition to poaching by other, higher paying law enforcement agencies, he said, some troopers today are leaving what was once considered a lifetime profession for lucrative oilfield work. Whitmire complained that it seemed like "it's gotten to where 400 is an acceptable level" of unfilled trooper positions. McCraw essentially agreed, saying DPS had never in his time been below 300 vacancies.
While McCraw bemoaned the trooper shortage and low pay, the committee blew past what to me are two important, related policy questions driving DPS' staffing retention problems. First is the effect of DPS' deployment shift toward border security, which as McCraw told the committee by definition means there's "someplace in Texas that's less secure." One small example came up at the hearing. Turns out, the Legislature authorized the DPS to purchase its much ballyhooed river boats to patrol the Rio Grande, but they did not give the agency money to staff and operate them. So the agency took those 29 FTEs (full-time equivalent staff positions) for marine operations from funds that would otherwise pay for more troopers. Conveniently, the chronic trooper shortage frees up money in the budget for such impromptu adjustments.
Also, not only do such deployment decisions minimize highway safety elsewhere in the state, short-term trooper deployments to South Texas are disruptive to morale and make troopers' relatively low salaries seem even less enticing. In general, the border is already the safest region of the state, in part because of the alphabet soup of federal agencies who make DPS' border watching redundant.
Senators, though, were for the most part in no mood to confront those sorts of big-picture questions. Indeed, senators from border region said they welcomed the extra deployments there. Nor was there a peep from anyone about backlogs at DPS crime labs, surprisingly. Instead, the issue over which senators mainly questioned the agency's priorities surrounded long wait times for processing driver license applications.
DPS has completed all six of its new "megacenters" (price tag: $63 million) as of a few weeks ago, the committee was told, and hired nearly all 361 FTEs budgeted for them, but everyone at the hearing seemed to agree that hadn't solved the problem of long wait times, nor the great distances some rural Texans must drive to renew their licenses. DPS is requesting $104.5 million for 839 additional FTEs to increase drivers license processing capacity. But Sen. Glenn Hegar thought DPS had under-emphasized the issue, pointing out that the agency's requests for additional funding were prioritized and drivers license processing was number 25, with $400 million in spending requests in front of it. "I have no excuse for my constituents anymore," Hegar told McCraw, citing "continuous complaints." The Colonel, in turn, expressed frustration that he'd returned to Texas to work on homeland security and organized crime and stays up at night worrying about drivers licenses.
That line elicited chuckles across the room, but it wasn't the only comment that made one think Col. McCraw, a former FBI agent, might prefer to be running an agency more like his former federal employer than the traffic-safety focused entity he inherited. He portrayed troopers as "investigators on the road," looking to use traffic enforcement as probable cause to launch investigations into Mexican drug cartels. DPS will soon be issuing a "state intelligence assessment," he announced, similar to its national counterpart but specific to Texas, that identifies and prioritizes threats to the state. There will be a redacted version made available to the public. Like Sen. Hegar, though, I think the public might be more impressed if, instead of the intelligence assessment, he were about to announce plans to reduce lines at driver-license counters across the state.
McCraw similarly expressed frustration when he was gently criticized for DPS' failure to timely process FEMA claims from natural disasters; in some cases claims from 2008 still haven't been processed. There is no general revenue spent toward federal recovery, he noted dryly, deflecting blame back to the legislators. He suggested such work may not be "a core competency" of DPS. Certainly, though, the agency and all its high-paid administrators had just as much flexibility to assign personnel to processing FEMA paperwork as they did to manufacture 29 positions for "marine operations." It's at root a function of priorities.