AUGUSTA — Five years after joining the Maine State Police, Trooper Dane Wing recently faced the tough choice between keeping his “dream” job or seeking a more financially stable future for his growing family.

On Monday afternoon, Wing planned to formally resign his position. But first, the Marine Corps veteran and father of three made sure lawmakers understood why he and so many other state law enforcement officers have to make such a difficult decision.

“I’ve decided to resign from the Maine State Police and accept a better-paying position with the Department of Homeland Security,” he said.

Wing was among more than two dozen people who testified Monday in support of a bill to provide pay increases ranging from 12 percent to 18 percent to state police, game wardens, marine patrol agents and other law enforcement officers employed by the state. Sought by the LePage administration, the hefty pay raise is aimed at improving recruitment and stemming the flow of officers leaving state jobs for better-paying positions elsewhere.

Supporters say the raises are needed to catch up with local police departments, federal agencies and other states that surpassed Maine during the recession years when state employees’ pay was frozen and merit or longevity increases were eliminated.

JOBS UNFILLED BECAUSE OF LOW PAY

The Maine State Police, which has 341 sworn officers when at full strength, currently has 32 vacancies plus 25 individuals eligible for retirement this year. The Maine Warden Service is facing the prospect of one-third of the agency’s 124 game wardens reaching retirement eligibility within five years.

Chief Russell Gauvin said Bureau of Capitol Police officers are paid less than their counterparts at every other state capital around the country. And the Maine Marine Patrol recently lost five officers in three months, three of whom joined municipal police departments. The marine patrol has been unable to fill a Portland boat captain job for two years.

“We are not asking to be the top-paid enforcement officers in the state, we are simply asking to be competitive,” marine patrol Col. Jonathan Cornish told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

The bill under consideration, L.D. 1653, would provide a pay increase to 30 job classifications across the agencies, ranging from 12 percent for game warden or marine patrol sergeant to 18 percent for the handful of marine patrol “specialists” who serve as boat captains.

Maine’s starting pay for a state trooper is currently $18.57 per hour, or roughly $38,600 annually before taxes. The new rate, a roughly 13 percent increase, would bump troopers up to $20.98 per hour. That compares with a starting pay of $25.82 an hour at the Gorham Police Department, $23.19 at the New Hampshire State Police and $27 an hour at the Vermont State Police.

Some state troopers make significantly more than their base salary through overtime, with six troopers earning more than $100,000 in base pay, overtime and stipends in 2015, according to public records.

When asked about the overtime issue, the chief of the state police, Col. Robert Williams, said the state will never eliminate overtime pay because of the on-call nature of the work. A typical homicide investigation, for instance, costs $8,000 to $10,000 in overtime because of the additional investigation and forensic work required. But Williams said increasing salaries could help fill some of the vacancies and avoid others, reducing overtime payouts.

“This is not about a pay raise,” Williams said. “This is about making us competitive in the market.”

NO COST ESTIMATE, POLITICAL TENSIONS

The LePage administration has yet to estimate for lawmakers how much the pay raises would cost. The sponsor of the governor’s bill, House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport, acknowledged it would likely be “significant.”

“When you’re playing eight years of catch-up, I expect that it will be significant,” Fredette said.

There is bipartisan support in the Legislature for providing a pay raise to law enforcement officers. Both chambers of the Legislature already have given initial approval to a bill to provide a 5 percent pay raise to law enforcement supervisors – a measure that likely will be put on the back burner while lawmakers consider LePage’s late-filed pay-raise bill.

Political tensions also were on display Monday.

Several Democrats on the Appropriations Committee have been calling for any pay raises to be included in a larger, supplemental budget bill dealing with other changes in state spending at the midway point of the budget cycle. LePage and some Republicans in the Legislature have resisted the Democratic calls for a supplemental budget.

On Monday, some Democrats on the committee noted that the LePage administration did not agree to larger pay increases during contract negotiations with the various state employee unions, which include those representing the state law enforcement officers. Democrats also suggested that other state employees deserve a hefty raise after seeing their pay frozen during the recession.

“Collective bargaining has tried to raise (the salaries) of these people, but the executive branch has not given the raises,” said Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco. “And so now, all of a sudden the executive branch is getting a very select group of people to bypass collective bargaining and saying we will give just these people raises and nobody else in state government.”

The bill also does not include all law enforcement workers employed by the state. For instance, adult and juvenile probation officers, Department of Corrections investigators, Maine Forest Service rangers and detectives within the Maine Attorney General’s Office would not receive pay raises, although union representatives indicated Monday they would push for their inclusion in the bill.

The legislation drew broad support from commercial fishermen, who want a robust enforcement presence on Maine’s waters, as well as students and professors at Unity College, whose natural resources law-enforcement program has become a pipeline for candidates to become game wardens and marine patrol officers.

FULL MISSION, LIVES IN JEOPARDY

Although speakers Monday said retention and recruitment are problems statewide, they are particularly acute in southern and coastal Maine, where the cost of living is higher. Marine patrol agents, for instance, must live within 30 miles of the busiest port in their coverage area.

Specialist Corrie Roberts, who is one of five marine patrol boat captains, warned that three of those specialists will be eligible to retire by next year. Meanwhile, the department has struggled to recruit anyone to fill the specialist vacancy in Portland because of the low pay for a job that involves everything from rescue operations in the worst weather to checking 20-trap lobster lines 70 miles offshore.

“If we fail to fill these vacancies with qualified professional mariners, the Maine Marine Patrol will have to compromise some part of its mission in offshore waters,” Roberts said. “Even worse, we will almost certainly jeopardize lives, both of those we serve and our own.”

The Appropriations Committee will likely hold several work sessions on the bill in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, some Democrats called on the Legislature and the LePage administration to work on a long-term plan to address pay inequity concerns that are luring qualified people away from the state workforce.

“Our state’s vitality depends on the health of our workforce,” committee co-chair Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said in a written statement. “We have an immediate responsibility to address these critical recruitment and retention challenges threatening our core industries, but Maine’s leaders must come together to develop a long-term plan. Governing by crisis is not the way forward for Maine.”


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