DPS to lay off 117 officers in light of budget cuts

7:34 p.m Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 Texas News & Politics
A DPS trooper leads the Color Guard in the posting of the colors at the start of the Texas Department of Public Safety annual Memorial Service to honor officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty at a ceremony at DPS headquarters in Austin on May 16. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Texas Department of Public Safety officials announced Friday they have hired 97 new highway patrol officers even though earlier this week, the state Public Safety Commission approved plans to lay off 117 officers and eliminate an additional 60 positions.

First reported Friday by KXAN, the public safety agency by May 31 will eliminate its so-called retire/rehire program, which allows retired officers to be rehired. Established in 2002 to remedy a workforce shortage, the $15 million program encourages the retention of highly experienced officers who get to draw on their pensions while earning a monthly salary.

“This was a very difficult but necessary decision to address the budget cuts implemented during the 85th Legislative Session, which amounted to $50 million — 177 commissioned positions and 148 non-commissioned positions,” DPS Director Steven McCraw said in a memo.

The DPS had about 4,330 commissioned officer positions in fiscal 2017.

The Texas Department of Public Safety Officers Association, which represents the interests of employees in DPS, suggested the lay offs were discriminatory against older officers.

“Irrespective of whether there is a conscious effort on the Department’s part to discriminate against these older, seasoned state troopers, there is no doubt that these dismissals will have a disparate impact upon these officers based upon their age,” said Bob Gorsky, an attorney for the association. “We urge the Department to reassess its plan before these loyal employees and their families are irreparably harmed.”

Facing a shortfall in the 2018-19 two-year budget cycle, the state’s top three leaders — Republicans Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus — instructed state agencies to submit budget proposals with 4 percent spending cuts.

Cutting 60 positions through attrition and eliminating the retire/rehire program made the most sense, according to DPS documents. Retired officers make an average $125,700 a year, while their nonretired peers make $117,733. The DPS also must pay a 10 percent surcharge on each retired officer hired after September 2009.

The agency had stopped using the retire/rehire program regularly in 2013, after the Legislature increased officer salaries and improved retention efforts. Since 2015, the agency has hired 1,050 new officers.

On Friday, the DPS commissioned a new class of recruits that included 18 women, 16 former peace officers and 36 military veterans.

Even as they demanded cuts this legislative session, lawmakers also approved hiring 250 new DPS officers over the next two years as a part of a $800 million spending plan to shore up the Texas-Mexico border.

The agency has committed to easing the transition for troopers who will be laid off. Most will come from highway patrol; commercial vehicle enforcement, which primarily monitors 18-wheelers; and criminal investigations, including human trafficking and drug crimes.

“The proposed needs-based dismissal of the 118 employees who took advantage of the Retire/Rehire program will not leave an insurmountable experience deficit,” Skylor Hearn, DPS deputy director, said in documents. “DPS officers perform the same functions and have the same responsibilities regardless of whether or not they have previously retired.”