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Criticism builds for Texas DPS decision to lay off 117 older officers

The Texas Department of Public Safety is feeling the heat over a budget-related decision to lay off 117 officers serving in a retire/rehire program.

Texas Department of Public Safety recruit graduation class on April 7th, 2011 in Austin, Texas

In its latest attempt to address budget cuts, the Texas Department of Public Safety is again facing harsh criticism.

Multiple lawmakers and the department’s officers association have called for the reversal of a DPS decision to cut the positions of 117 law enforcement officers currently employed under the agency’s retire/rehire program. The decision was made while the agency looks for ways to comply with a mandated budget cut of more than $50 million, according to a DPS memo from last month. Other budget decisions made by the department this year have been overturned after public uproar.

The retire/rehire program was initiated in 2002, when the department was struggling to recruit new troopers and keep older ones from retiring to take better-paying jobs at local law enforcement agencies, according to the memo. Eligible officers were offered the incentive to stay with the department by being able to retire and then be rehired so they could collect retirement pay as well as a salary.

As the Texas Legislature began granting higher salaries for troopers, recruitment and retention became less of a problem, and the routine practice of retiring and rehiring ended in 2013, the memo said. But there are still 117 officers — including almost 40 highway patrol troopers — who work for the agency under the program. Last month, as was first reported by KXAN, DPS decided to lay off those employees in May to cut costs.

State Reps. Alfonso "Poncho" Nevárez and Terry Canales have asked the department to reconsider the decision, especially because the department announced the hiring of 97 new highway patrol troopers the day after the agency’s Public Safety Commission approved the proposed layoffs.

“There are many ways to balance a budget, but this proposed plan targets troopers, who for lack of any other qualifier, are old,” Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, said in a letter to the department’s director, Steve McCraw, this month.

The department said it looked at other ways to save money, but with a 4 percent budget cut and a requirement to hire 250 new troopers under border security funding, the elimination of officer positions was necessary. McCraw said in a meeting with the Public Safety Commission last month that these 117 officers were the best place to cut. The commission’s chairman, Steven Mach, agreed.

“There are no easy decisions, but you have to cut somewhere,” Mach said. “I would prefer we not have to do this, but it’s the right decision.”

The DPS decision to cut these positions comes on the heels of other failed attempts at tightening the purse strings of the $2.4 billion agency — attempts which were reversed after public outcry.

In June, the agency cut back the business hours of popular driver’s license offices and planned to lay off 100 employees to slash the budget for the agency’s licensing division. Citizens and lawmakers alike balked almost immediately at the change, and Gov. Greg Abbott announced the reversal of the decision on Twitter shortly after a Houston Chronicle article highlighted the issue.

The next month, the agency shocked the law enforcement community when it announced it would begin charging local agencies for the previously free use of state crime labs, which perform tests like DWI and DNA testing. A budget provision allowed the state to charge fees for forensic testing to make up for a cut to the division, but Abbott again stepped in after the outcry.

He said in a letter to McCraw about a week after the agency decision was announced that the budget didn’t mandate the fee collection and that its current budget should “ensure the crime lab will operate at full capacity.”

A spokeswoman for Abbott did not immediately respond to questions about the governor’s stance on the decision to cut the retire/rehire positions.

In a statement this week asking for the reversal of the retire/rehire decision, the Department of Public Safety Officers Association pointed to a budget provision allowing the transfer of money to keep officer deployment levels at the same level as 2017.

“We… believe this decision is contrary to the intent of the Governor and Legislators to not only maintain 2017 troop levels, but add an additional 250 troopers,” the statement said.

Canales, D-Edinburg, said this week in a letter to McCraw that it appears the department might be “forsaking their battle-tested veterans by picking youth over experience.” Nevárez said last month that the department is balancing its budget on "the backs of the most senior officers" and asked McCraw to discuss other options to reduce funds.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who leads the House’s Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, said the agency didn’t want to cut these positions, but when a majority of a large department’s funding goes toward personnel, cutting positions “is just mathematically going to have to be a part of” any budget cuts. He said continuing to hire new troopers at the same time of the layoffs is necessary for the department’s future.

“The only decision to make for the agency is to look at the long term, and that’s continuing to staff those academy classes and have a pipeline of new troopers in the system,” he said.

The discussion will continue in the coming weeks. This week, the program's elimination was added to the agenda of a  hearing in King's committee set for Feb. 1 in Tyler.

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