Senate Panel: Spend More on Capitol Security

April 28, 2011

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The NerveIn possible shades of a proposed “Capitol Police Force” redux, the S.C. Senate’s budget-writing committee wants to spend $900,000 next fiscal year to bolster security at the State House complex with an additional 12 full-time officers.

The expenditure presumably would be annually recurring.

By comparison, the tax dollars could pay for an equal or greater number of state troopers or public school teachers, whose ranks were thinned amid state budget cuts during the Great Recession.

The Senate Finance Committee included the $900,000 in its proposed budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The Senate is debating the budget this week.

The 12 additional personnel would reinforce a State House grounds security system that features an unknown number of officers already assigned to the area; separate House and Senate sergeants-at-arms divisions; and a $6 million upgrade project completed in phases over the past few years.

Among other components, the project added a street-level guard station and concrete barrier on the south side of the State House.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford, criticizing the security upgrade as frivolous and unnecessary, deactivated much of it.

One of Sanford’s legislative arch-nemeses, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, responded by sponsoring a bill in 2009 to create a “Capitol Police Force.” The Senate passed the bill but it died in the House.

The legislation generated much derision and sarcasm aimed at McConnell and its other supporters during the tightest of tight budget times.

So, does the Finance panel’s proposed $900,000 for 12 more cops at the Capitol complex resurrect the would-be police force idea? Is it a backdoor attempt at the same?

True, a few nut jobs have gone all Dukes of Hazzard on the State House grounds in recent years, messing up the grass and colliding with a monument and so forth.

But that was before the security upgrade project.

And, seriously, is Osama bin Laden or some other terrorist boogeyman, like, plotting an attack that merits the extra muscle?

Your call, Nerve readers, your call.

This much we do know: While the State House is hardly the White House in terms of security, it’s not as accessible as the average church sanctuary, either.

Capitol complex security is the province of the Bureau of Protective Services, a division of the S.C. Department of Public Safety. The bureau employs 64 sworn officers, according to Sid Gaulden, a spokesman for the agency.

He would not disclose how many of those officers are assigned to the State House. “That’s basic security information that we would not put out or publish,” Gaulden says.

He notes that the jurisdiction of Protective Services officers is not limited to the Capitol; that it includes, for example, the state Supreme Court. “They have other duties also,” Gaulden says.

What does the Department of Public Safety think of the proposed 12 additional officers for security at the Capitol complex?

“We don’t discuss the legislative actions until they become final,” Gaulden says. He describes that silence as the agency’s “longstanding policy” because measures often are introduced in the General Assembly that do not pass.

Well then, does Public Safety think it would be better to use an extra $900,000 to hire more troopers, or more Bureau of Protective Services officers?

“I can’t answer that question because it’s mixing apples and oranges,” Gaulden responds, characterizing the choice as “not an option.”

The state had 953 troopers on the road in 2008; by last year the number was down to 805, according to figures Gaulden provided.

The average trooper salary last fiscal year ranged from approximately $32,600 to $39,500, according to other data from Gaulden.

The elimination of teaching jobs in the Palmetto State was even more pronounced during the recession.

For the current school year, South Carolina districts reported some 48,744 allocated teaching slots, a decrease of 2,145 positions from last school year and 3,676 from the 2008-09 school year, according to a December 2010 report by the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention & Advancement. The center is an independent state entity on the Winthrop University campus in the Rock Hill area of the Upstate.

The average teacher salary in South Carolina currently is $47,500, according to state Department of Education spokesman Jim Foster.

In any event, legislative sergeants-at-arms provide another layer of protection inside the copper-domed Capitol.

Both the House and Senate have sergeants-at-arms divisions. They operate as independent security functions separate from the Bureau of Protective Services, and they’re not rent-a-cops.

On the House side, The State newspaper’s state salary database lists a sergeant-at-arms who earns approximately $82,300 per year; an assistant sergeant-at-arms (about $57,200); and a security supervisor for an office building that’s part of the Capitol complex ($54,300).

That’s roughly $193,800 total.

On the Senate side, the database lists a sergeant-at-arms (slightly more than $84,300); a chief deputy sergeant-at-arms (about $58,200); and a deputy sergeant-at-arms (nearly $57,300).

That’s about $199,800 altogether.

Combined for both chambers, the sergeants-at-arms operations ring up to a minimum of close to $400,000 per year in salaries alone.

Then there’s the Bureau of Protective Services. It was funded at a touch less than $1.3 million this fiscal year, according to Gaulden.

But, ah, what’s another 900 grand in a $21.7 billion-something budget anyway, right?

(Tell that to the folks hoping to land one of those Amazon jobs hanging out there in the ether of the economic incentives game.)

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.