Most West Virginians live in rural or suburban areas, relying on sheriff's departments and the State Police for public safety. State Police troopers also provide most patrols on thousands of miles of highways.
But his department is dramatically understaffed, State Police Superintendent Col. Jay Smithers told legislators this week. A total of 698 troopers are employed by the State Police - and 275 more are needed, Smithers said.
Of the 60 State Police detachments scattered across West Virginia, 22 have four or fewer troopers, Smithers noted. The level of staffing is inadequate to provide the 24-hour a day, seven-day a week coverage many Mountain State residents expect.
The problem - you guessed it - is money. A recent training class for new troopers had to be delayed because of funding constraints, the superintendent explained. With adequate funding, the State Police could graduate a 50-trooper class every year, he added.
Smithers' department is not the only one in state government having trouble making ends meet. Many have had to reduce spending below levels of a year ago, in order to avoid a budget deficit.
Matters are likely to grow worse. Two important sources of revenue - legalized gambling and coal severance taxes - will not be as lucrative as in the past. And, especially if the state follows through with plans to expand the Medicaid program, the long-term outlook is not good.
But State Police provide an important service to the public. Allowing the department to languish will mean some public safety needs cannot be met.
Lawmakers should ask Smithers for a number - the amount of additional funding he believes is necessary to avoid cuts in service. Then, the Legislature should take a hard look at state spending and, if at all possible, find more money for the State Police.