A Wyoming Highway Patrol officer makes a stop on I-80 between Rawlins and Laramie in November 2017. H/t Andrew Graham, WyoFile.
On behalf of the Wyoming State Troopers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, I would like to express concerns for the future of our membership, all Wyoming law enforcement officers and for the safety of the general public within our beautiful and vast state.
Our concern centers on Senate File 51 – Wyoming retirement plans- contributions, which has been sponsored by the Joint Appropriations Committee. I want to share some concerning statistics in hopes lawmakers recognize that it is time to further invest in Wyoming’s brave men and women in law enforcement.
Senate File SF51 suggests an increase in employee contributions to the retirement system over the next several years.
The specific details are as follows:
State law enforcement officers (Wyoming Highway Patrol, Game and Fish and Division of Criminal Investigation criminal investigators) would see several increases to their contributions. These employee contribution increases range from at least 3.64% in July of 2020 to at least 6.64% by July 2023. Members of the City and County Law Enforcement Retirement System would also undergo a 3% increase in contributions over the next three years.
All told, Wyoming law enforcement officers will undergo a 4% reduction in take-home salary over the next four years, while city and county law enforcement officers will undergo a 3% reduction in their take-home salary over the next three years.
Furthermore, Senate File Senate File 129 – State group health insurance plan, looks to once again increase our healthcare deductible and lower the percentage of medical costs covered by our insurance provider. Wyoming already has the highest cost of medical healthcare of all 50 states.
Law enforcement recruitment is down over 60% across the board over the past decade. This nationwide epidemic has greatly affected Wyoming.
The Wyoming Highway Patrol, which is one of the smallest highway patrol agencies in the country in terms of number of sworn officers, has struggled to recruit and retain quality troopers. There are many reasons for this, but to say that it takes a special individual to work in the 10th largest state in the country in some of mother nature’s worst weather — and oftentimes with no backup officers within an hour’s drive — would be an understatement.
When I took the oath in 2007, trooper starting pay was $2,984 per month. Nearly 13 years later, the starting pay is $3,506 per month, which is an increase of $522 over the course of that time.
In the last decade, Wyoming state law enforcement officers received an average of a 2.38% wage increase in 2014, and a 2.93% wage increase in 2015. Both were set up through the PMI system instituted by the Legislature to pay for performance.
After the initial two years of funding, however, the PMI employee rating system — while still in effect — has had no attachment to salary increases in the past four years.
A 2.5% wage increase for state employees was given in July of 2019 in an attempt to reduce the number of employees jumping ship, but was quickly overridden by a 12% increase in insurance premium cost, which became effective Jan. 1, 2020.
Over the same decade, we went from paying zero dollars into our retirement, to paying 2.64% of our yearly income. Our medical insurance premiums have continually been on the rise — according to online sources, the rate of increase was 18.3% from 2010 to 2020.
When Gov. Mead left office, he noted that Wyoming State Employees’ take-home salaries had steadily decreased each year from 2015 to 2018.
During this time of hardship, the WHP struggled to recruit and retain troopers, who often left for better-paying law enforcement jobs elsewhere.
For example, over the past five years and due to vigorous recruiting efforts, the WHP was fortunate to hire 107 employees to compensate for the exodus. However, during the same period we lost 54 employees. It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and funding to hire and train new recruits, just to watch them leave for better opportunities elsewhere.
If the Legislature chose to further invest in its state law enforcement officers, the expenses of recruiting and training would be drastically reduced through retaining our existing officers and troopers.
The rate of turnover is likely to continue and become more troubling, as approximately 25% of the sworn WHP members are eligible for retirement within the next five years.
Our average trooper is older now than he or she used to be, due to our struggle to recruit the younger generation. Some of the reasons for this struggle include adverse and unsafe working conditions as compared to other professions, little room for career advancement, no defined pay structure based on years of service, and pay and benefits that are quite often lower than other city and county departments within Wyoming or throughout the country.
The rotating nature of shift work and troopers being placed on call before or after each shift while being compensated $1 per hour often keeps his or her spouse from being able to work a full or even part time job. If they have children and require child care, the job’s unpredictable nature also makes obtaining childcare complicated. Many troopers also qualify for certain assistance programs like SNAP and LIEAP.
A 2018 report published by Wyoming’s Office of Administration and Information stated that Wyoming state law enforcement officers were reported to be 8.47% underpaid when compared to other western states.
During the past decade of budget cuts and sparse wage increases, the troopers who remained steadfast and loyal to the WHP, the state of Wyoming, and all of Wyoming’s travelers were required to work longer shifts with less backup.
We have become very efficient at “doing more with less,” but we have reached a point in which additional wage cuts through increased insurance costs, inflation, and increased retirement contributions will undoubtedly contribute to exacerbated recruitment and retention issues.
At this point, approximately half of the troopers have five or fewer years of experience, because many of our highly trained and experienced troopers have left for more gainful employment. Meanwhile, as those newly minted troopers hit their five-year mark, they often see little hope on the horizon for advancement and leave for greener pastures.
The Wyoming Retirement System is actually well funded, and a reduction in projected rates of return on their investments has given rise to the appearance of the fund needing increased contributions. The Wyoming Retirement System proposed a 2% increase to be paid by the employee, and the remaining 2% to be paid by the employer. However, SF51 leaves the employee to cover the entire financial burden. At current contribution levels, the retirement system for state law enforcement would be 100% funded by year 2049, according to information from the Wyoming Retirement System.
Some research into the numbers shows the state law enforcement retirement system is allegedly currently 76% funded and is projected to be only 78% funded in 30 years.
However, this does not tell the whole story. In 2012 when state law enforcement officers were required to pay zero dollars into the retirement system, the actuary was said to be 79% funded. How did we reduce the amount of actuary funding percentages while increasing employee contributions? The Wyoming Retirement System changed the projected interest accrual rate from 8% down to 7%, and also instituted the use of a longevity model that extended the projected longevity of retiree’s lives.
The numbers used by the Wyoming Retirement System to create these projections were calculated from a January 2019 market analysis. 2018 was a low year for the stock market and 2019 was a very high year for the stock market. Additionally, due to the large amount of vacancies, there were approximately 30 fewer employees paying into the system as of January 2019.
We were able to fill a number of vacancies recently, but with no wage increases on the horizon and reductions in take-home pay created by increased retirement contributions and health care costs, we once again stand to lose a large number of those we have recently hired. The math used to create these numbers uses a snapshot in time which does not paint the long-term picture accurately.
Keith Brainard and Paul Zorn, of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators published an article which stated 80% was the proper threshold required to deem a retirement account “healthy.” The article also quotes prior studies which deemed actuaries above 70% solvency as “adequate.”
What all this translates into for the citizens and travelers of Wyoming, is longer call response times, less proactive highway enforcement to keep our roads safe, and increased highway fatality rates.
We put our lives on the line daily. We work all hours of the day and night, we work in the worst weather imaginable, we are struck by passing vehicles on our roadways, we are assaulted and we are fired upon by violent criminals. We are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and neighbors. We serve and protect on duty just the same as we do off-duty in our local communities.
None of us signed up to work in law enforcement to become wealthy, but we would ask that we be treated fairly and be compensated appropriately given the difficult nature of our job, and the high level of skill and knowledge required to perform our duties at the highest level. If nothing is done to invest in the future of law enforcement officers in, the citizens and travelers of this great state are the ones who will suffer most.
I implore lawmakers to consider these facts and vote against Senate File SF51 and Senate File SF129. Please consider investing further in your state’s law enforcement professionals to ensure we keep this beautiful state a safe place for all of our families.
About Brandon Deckert: Deckert has been a Wyoming State Trooper for nearly 13 years. He is also a K-9 handler, an academy instructor, a former board member for the Wyoming Highway Patrol Association, and the president of the State Troopers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
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