LAO 2006 Budget Analysis: Transportation

Analysis of the 2006-07 Budget Bill

Legislative Analyst's Office
February 2006

California Highway Patrol (2720)

The California Highway Patrol’s (CHP’s) core mission is to ensure safety and enforce traffic laws on state highways and county roads in unincorporated areas. The department also promotes traffic safety by inspecting commercial vehicles, as well as inspecting and certifying school buses, ambulances, and other specialized vehicles. The CHP carries out a variety of other mandated tasks related to law enforcement, including investigating vehicular theft and providing backup to local law enforcement in criminal matters. In addition, the department provides protective services and security for state employees and property. Since September 11, 2001, CHP has played a major role in the state’s enhanced antiterror activities.

The CHP’s overall level of staffing is about 10,700 positions. The department is comprised of uniformed (sworn) and nonuniformed (nonsworn) personnel, with uniformed personnel accounting for approximately 7,300 positions, or 67 percent, of total staff.

The budget proposes nearly $1.6 billion in support for CHP in 2006-07, about $124 million (8.5 percent) above estimated current-year expenditures. The increase is primarily related to first-year funding ($57 million) of a multiyear radio system upgrade as well as staffing augmentations for patrol services and wireless 911 call handling ($40 million).

Most of CHP’s budget is funded from the Motor Vehicle Account (MVA), which derives its revenues primarily from vehicle registration and driver license fees. For 2006-07, MVA funds would comprise nearly 90 percent of CHP’s support costs.

Enhanced Radio System Proposed to Improve Communications

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) proposes to begin in 2006-07 a five-year, $491 million project to modernize its radio system. We concur that CHP’s radio system needs improving, however, it is not clear to what extent the proposed solution supports the state’s goal for interoperability among public safety agencies. We recommend that the Director of the Office of Emergency Services, in his role as chair of the Public Safety Radio Strategic Planning Committee, report to the Legislature at budget hearings on how CHP’s proposal supports the state’s goal.

Background. Immediate and reliable access to information is fundamental to public safety agencies’ ability to protect life and property. For CHP officers in the field, the radio system is the primary, and sometimes only, link to information and resources during both routine and emergency operations. To be effective, the system must allow officers to communicate without disruption from interference, lack of coverage, congestion, or equipment failure (collectively referred to as “operability”). In addition, the system must have the ability to communicate with other public safety agencies as needed (known as “interoperability”).

The CHP’s radio system consists of both mobile and fixed assets. The mobile component includes, for example, mobile and portable radios. The fixed component includes base stations (radio transmitters/receivers).

The CHP uses its radio system for department operations about 90 percent of the time. Roughly 10 percent of the system’s use is to provide interoperability with other public safety agencies. The existing radio system was designed in the early 1960s and operates primarily in low band frequencies, which accommodate a wider geographic area than high band frequencies. According to a performance review conducted by the Department of Finance in 2002, most of the CHP’s radio equipment is more than ten years old-beyond its useful life expectancy.

Existing Radio System Is Obsolete and Fails to Meet Department’s Needs. The CHP maintains that its public safety radio equipment is obsolete and the fixed infrastructure is failing. Based on our review, we concur with the department’s assessment. Documented problems include aging equipment, rising costs for maintenance and repair, and lack of functionality deemed critical by the department. For instance, officers are unable to communicate at a sufficient distance from their enforcement vehicles (the current 400 to 500 foot reach is too limiting), to broadcast over a wide area without assistance from a communications center, or to access different frequencies as needed for operability and interoperability. The department also notes deficiencies in its fixed equipment that limit dispatch capabilities.

The CHP is also experiencing problems with frequency congestion (too many users in the same frequency bands) and insufficient coverage (inability to use certain frequencies in some operational areas). To address these issues, CHP seeks a flexible system that allows officers access to multiple frequencies using the same mobile radio unit. Such a system would improve operability, particularly with respect to coverage issues. However, congestion problems are likely to continue among all public safety radio users unless additional frequencies are made available by the Federal Communications Commission.

Previous Efforts to Implement a Statewide, Integrated System Failed. In 1994, CHP-along with nine other public safety agencies and the Department of General Services-initiated a process to build a statewide, integrated public safety radio system. After several years of planning, that effort culminated in a proposal to replace the entire state public safety radio infrastructure. Under the proposal-commonly known as the PRISM project-all state agencies would have operated in selected high frequency bands using the same type of equipment, thus facilitating direct interoperability. Plans called for a phased build-out beginning in 2001-02. However, the project did not proceed because of its high price tag ($3.5 billion over 15 years) and the state’s fiscal constraints. The CHP subsequently withdrew its participation in the project due, in part, to the projected costs to the MVA and the long implementation timeline.

Budget Proposes to Replace Radios and Selected Infrastructure. The Governor’s budget proposes to modernize CHP’s public safety radio system over a five-year period beginning in 2006-07. The proposal entails significant investments in new fixed and mobile equipment. Specifically, it would replace all mobile and portable radios, selected fixed radio equipment such as base stations and receivers, and upgrade other communications infrastructure. Under this proposal, CHP would continue to use its existing low frequency bands, but would possess the capability of switching to channels tuned to selected higher frequency bands as needed to achieve operability and interoperability. The success of this solution depends on the acquisition of additional low band radio frequencies and the negotiation of agreements between agencies on procedural guidelines that govern the linking and integration of systems. The proposal would mean that data (as opposed to voice) communications would continue to rely on in-vehicle computers, which are currently deployed in about 30 percent of patrol vehicles.

Five-Year Proposal Would Cost $491 Million. The total cost of the project is estimated at $491 million. The budget requests $57 million for 2006-07, the first year of project implementation. The projected lifespan of the purchased equipment is approximately ten years. Thus, once the initial commitment and associated investments are made, the direction is set for at least the next decade.

Proposal Justified, but Alignment With State Direction Unclear. Our review shows that improving CHP’s radio communications system is warranted. This is because the system is obsolete and fails to meet the department’s operational needs. While the proposed solution would satisfy CHP’s operational needs, it is unclear to what extent it achieves interoperability. Instead of a single, integrated statewide system, the proposed solution would result in the state having a number of communications systems among various public safety agencies for the next decade or longer. Thus, the key issue facing the state is how best to address the state’s interoperability needs while ensuring that CHP’s operational needs are met in a timely way.

Recommend PSRSPC Report at Budget Hearings. Chapter 1091, Statutes of 2002 (AB 2018, Nakano),-the Public Safety Communications Act-assigned the Public Safety Radio Strategic Planning Committee (PSRSPC) primary responsibility for developing and implementing a statewide radio system that facilitates interoperability among all of the state’s public safety departments, as well as assessing the need for new or upgraded equipment and establishing a program for equipment purchase. Given the PSRSPC’s statutory mandate to develop a public safety radio system that facilitates statewide interoperability as well as the scope and long-term nature of this project, we recommend that the Director of the Office of Emergency Services, who currently serves as chair of the PSRSPC, report at budget hearings on: (1) the extent to which the proposed project supports the state’s interoperability goals-without compromising CHP’s operational needs and (2) whether CHP’s proposal would hinder or complicate future development of other systems.

Justification for Additional Wireless 911 Staffing Inadequate

We withhold recommendation on the department’s request for 173 positions to augment its wireless 911 call-center staff, pending receipt of a revised proposal that takes into consideration a variety of factors that affect staffing requirements. Any request to further augment staffing in 2007-08 should be submitted as a separate proposal next year after the department has assessed the impact of new technology as well as any staffing increases made in 2006-07.

Current Call-Center Staffing. The CHP is required by state law to answer all wireless 911 calls that are not otherwise routed to local public safety answering points. The department’s 25 communications centers answer most wireless 911 calls placed in the state. Currently, these centers are staffed by 325 call-takers who perform a variety of functions, including answering wireless 911 calls, dispatching emergency services, and advising the public and other agencies of incident details or CHP services. The CHP indicates that wireless 911 calls represent more than 80 percent of the telephone workload handled by its communications centers statewide. Because staffing has stayed relatively unchanged, the growth in call volumes in recent years has contributed to delays in call response. According to an audit conducted by the Bureau of State Audits (BSA) in 2004, of the nine CHP communications centers that tracked wait times, six had wait times that exceeded the state’s ten-second performance benchmark. Average wait times ranged from a low of 4.7 seconds in Orange County to a high of 49.2 seconds in Los Angeles.

Proposal Doubles Staffing Level Over Two Years. The department proposes to more than double the size of its call-taking staff over two years, from 325 to 654. Specifically, the proposal requests hiring authority for 173 positions in 2006-07. However, because these positions would be phased in at the rate of 12 to 14 per month, the request includes partial-year funding of $6.4 million in 2006-07 and full-year funding of $10.5 million in 2007-08. The remaining 156 positions and $9 million would be added in 2007-08, bringing the ongoing cost of the two-year staffing augmentation to roughly $19 million annually.

The CHP estimated its additional staffing requirements using an approach that treats small communications centers differently from the larger ones. At the department’s nine small centers, the proposed staffing level reflects a decision to separate call-taking and radio dispatch duties into two stations. Based on this configuration, staffing at each small center would increase to a minimum of six positions to ensure 24/7 coverage of the call-taking station.

At the 16 medium to large centers-where call volume is a more critical factor-the proposed staffing level is based on a standard formula used for 911 call centers. The formula takes into account total monthly call volume, average telephone talk time, and a fixed allocation for call wrap-up to cover administrative duties such as logging the call.

Staffing Formula Fails to Account for All Relevant Factors and Relies Too Heavily on Estimates of Call Volume. The volume-driven formula used by CHP for its medium to large centers was designed to estimate staffing requirements for a typical 911 call center, with an emphasis on ensuring adequate peak hour coverage. While CHP applied the formula to a typical hour (based on a 30-day average), this approach does not take into consideration variations in workload and, therefore, may not accurately reflect total staffing needs. Moreover, the formula does not account for other factors that influence staffing requirements-such as call wait times and abandoned call rates-which vary by center. A second shortcoming in the staffing proposal relates to the underlying data used to make the calculations. The CHP lacks reliable data that are comparable across centers, therefore it was necessary to estimate call volumes and talk times in some cases. For example, data from only seven centers were used to project staffing needs for the 16 medium to large centers.

Another issue that complicates long-term staffing projections is the recent deployment of new technology. For example, some of the larger centers have implemented call-screening technology that weeds out unintentional calls. In addition, eight centers are in various stages of implementing enhanced wireless 911-a technology that provides the call-taker automatically with caller identification information (for example, cell phone number and location). This technology has the potential to reduce the time associated with each call. This technology also enables the selective routing of calls to local answering points, which may have the effect of reducing the number of calls handled by CHP. The department reports its initial experience has been that, after an initial drop in call volume, calls diverted due to call-screening and local rerouting were replaced by other calls. However, it is too soon to assess the long-term impacts of these technological enhancements.

Staffing Increase Warranted, but Little Basis for Accurately Projecting Needs. Our review shows that a staffing augmentation is warranted, given the growth in wireless phone usage as well as the high volume of calls handled per CHP dispatcher relative to local 911 call centers as noted in the BSA audit. However, a formula-driven approach-such as the one used by CHP in developing its staffing proposal-implies access to reliable data, as well as appropriate adjustments for other center-dependent variables that influence staffing needs. Both are lacking in the current proposal. The CHP has indicated that automated call-accounting data became available for all centers beginning November 2005. By the May Revision, the department will possess comparable statistics for all communications centers over a sufficient period to make more accurate projections.

Withhold Recommendation Pending Refined Proposal for May Revision. While we do not disagree that there is a need for some additional staffing, reliable data are not available to justify the specific number requested. Therefore, we withhold recommendation on the proposal to increase staff by 173 positions in 2006-07, and instead recommend that the department resubmit its proposal in time to be included in the May Revision. The resubmittal should incorporate several months of automated call-accounting data for all medium to large centers. It should also take into consideration other center-dependent variables that influence staffing needs, particularly call wait times. Any request to further augment staffing in 2007-08 should be submitted as a separate proposal next year after the department has assessed the impact of new technology as well as any staffing increases made in 2006-07.

Costs of Additional Staffing for Road Patrol Overestimated

For 2006-07, the department requests $34 million to hire an additional 240 road patrol officers, as well as 70 supervisory and nonuniform staff to support the officers. While the staffing augmentation is warranted, the requested funding is too high, as it does not adjust for the lower pay level the officers will receive while training at the academy. Accordingly, we recommend a reduction of $3.2 million due to overbudgeting. (Reduce Item 2720-001-0044 by $3.2 million.)

Uniformed personnel account for approximately 7,300 positions at CHP. Uniformed staff perform a variety of duties, including road patrol, vehicle theft investigation, and security services. Roughly two-thirds of CHP’s overall uniformed staff is assigned to patrol duties on roadways throughout the state. For 2006-07, the department requests $33.7 million to provide partial-year funding for 240 additional road patrol officers and full-year funding for 70 supervisory and nonuniformed staff. This staffing augmentation seeks to increase the number of hours that CHP officers spend on proactive road patrol. In order to address the state’s population growth and the resultant increase in vehicle travel, the department indicates that it plans to request similar staffing augmentations in the future.

Staffing Augmentation Warranted. In our January 2005 report, Enhancing Road Patrol Service Through Efficiencies, we discussed the importance of CHP officers performing proactive road patrol services in order to reduce incidences of accident-causing behavior. In addition, we recommended ways to increase the time that existing CHP uniformed staff devote to proactive road patrol activities. These recommendations included reducing reporting requirements for noninjury accidents and shifting uniformed staff currently performing administrative work to road patrol duties. The department reports that it is examining ways to streamline incident reporting and that it has shifted 150 uniformed staff from administrative work to patrol duties in the current year.

The department states, however, that increasing the efficient use of its existing uniformed staff alone is insufficient to address growth in population and vehicle use. This is particularly true for some of CHP’s divisions where there have been large increases in vehicle registrations and highway travel. In addition, vehicle collisions in other divisions have far outpaced officer hiring between 2000 and 2004. The CHP expects that increased road patrol and traffic enforcement will reduce the incidence of accidents on state highways. Thus, an increase in staffing directed at providing additional road patrol services, particularly for specific divisions, is warranted.

Proposal Overbudgeted. Despite the merits of this proposal, the funding level requested is too high. Specifically, the department requests $11.4 million in partial-year funding for officer salaries. However, this amount does not reflect the lower pay level that the new officers will receive while they are in training at the academy. According to CHP, all new uniformed staff must undergo six months of training in the academy prior to becoming an officer. Cadet class sizes in the academy are limited, thus the new officers will be phased in over 2006-07 at 60 new cadets per quarter. Our review shows that the new uniformed staff hires will receive cadet pay during much of 2006-07. Furthermore, 60 of the new hires will not reach officer pay status until 2007-08, when they complete the academy. The department’s request for $11.4 million in officer salaries does not take into account the period when each new hire receives cadet pay.

Funding for New Officers’ Salaries Should Be Reduced to Reflect Time in the Academy. We recommend $3.2 million be deleted from this proposal to account for the time that the new officers will spend in the academy and receive cadet pay.

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