COLUMBIA -- The state's ranks of Highway Patrol officers will slip to 2006 levels as early retirements and attrition slim the Department of Public Safety's payroll, agency director Mark Keel told South Carolina lawmakers Wednesday.
Keel told House budget writers he had 978 troopers on the road last June, but budget cuts that led to early retirement incentives and regular attrition are taking a toll. The retirement incentive program ends Feb. 2.
"Our troop levels will probably be around 850 to 870. Those levels are back to where we were in about 2006," Keel said during his first budget hearing while at the helm of the agency, which has a $77 million annual budget.
The agency has lost about $14 million to budget cuts since July. But a combination of things such as tapping reserve cash, attrition and eliminating temporary jobs have prevented furloughs and general layoffs, Keel said. And the agency is saving about $3.7 million by keeping 60 open jobs unfilled.
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The agency has had to cut back on temporary staff used to help enforce the state's auto insurance laws and cut into the number of retirees who have returned to work.
Keel said he wants to maintain the agency's efforts on drunken driving law enforcement and seat belt use. They're the top two areas the state pursues to reduce highway deaths, he said.
About 40 percent of the state's fatalities are alcohol related, well above the national rate of 33 percent, Keel said. Meanwhile, 67 percent of auto deaths involve people not wearing available seat belts.
Keel said he needs cash to cover the replacement of 105 high-mileage patrol cars.
Despite budget cuts, Keel said the state's roads are safer -- with deaths down about 17 percent in 2008. Most states reported fewer traffic deaths last year, but many officials linked that to high gas prices that kept people off the roads.
Rep. Annette Young, R-Summerville, said she couldn't promise the agency would get extra money. But she said she would work to get Public Safety the flexibility it needs to manage the money it has available.