For 30 years, the Maryland State Police troopers have been Carroll County's primary law enforcement - patrolling rural roads and answering calls in small, unincorporated communities.
Whether the troopers will continue to police these neighborhoods is likely to be decided by money and the state's support for the resident trooper program. The state no longer subsidizes the program in the county.
The county is questioning whether the state program is still the most cost-effective and viable law enforcement agency. If the program is dissolved, county officials will have to decide who will take over the primary responsibility of public safety in the county: the Sheriff's Office or a new county police force.
County Chief of Staff Steven D. Powell is scheduled to meet Tuesday with state and county law enforcement officials - including acting State Police Superintendent Thomas E. Hutchins, Westminster barracks commander Capt. Scott Yinger and Carroll Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning. They plan to discuss the future of the resident trooper program and overall policing efforts in the county.
Carroll's relationship with the trooper program dates to 1974. Of the two counties in Maryland that contract with the state police - Calvert being the other - Carroll's program is the larger, with 51 troopers. There are 46 assigned to patrol the county, including one who works part-time in New Windsor. The other five are in Mount Airy.
The question of whether the trooper program can keep up with the increasing demand for police services brought on by the county's rapid growth goes back at least a decade.
It surfaced again last week when it was revealed that the county commissioners want to begin discussions to "start transitioning the resident trooper services from the state to the sheriff's office," according to a Dec. 4 letter sent by the three officials to then-State Police Superintendent Col. Edward T. Norris.
Despite the letter's suggestion that the commissioners are pushing for the Sheriff's Office to take over as the county's main law enforcement service, the commissioners say that could not be further from their intentions.
"No way," Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. said.
Commissioner Dean L. Minnich added, "I'm not in favor of a county police force."
What they're interested in, Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said, is pinning down state police plans for the future of the trooper program.
In writing the letter, Gouge said, the commissioners were working under an assumption that the program would not meet the county's growing policing needs.
The county has one of the lowest numbers of police officers per capita in Maryland, with 1.3 per 1,000. Law enforcement and county officials say they would like to see that increased to 1.5 officers per 1,000 residents.
During last year's county budget hearings, the state police chief financial officer indicated that no additional troopers would be available for the program.
"We had been hearing rumors back and forth that the resident trooper program would not go on forever," Gouge said Friday. "Last year during the budget hearing, that's when we really heard, 'You all need to be aware that we can't continue the resident trooper program as you knew it in the past. We can't keep up the number of troopers in Carroll County.'"
Meanwhile, the commissioners say they are getting calls and complaints from residents in the smaller and more rural areas of the county that their policing needs are not being met.
"I don't want to sound like I'm saying they're not doing their job ... [but] the county has grown so quickly, they [state police], like everyone else, need assistance in order to get the task done," Jones said.
The county pays the cost of the trooper program, including salaries and benefits - with an additional 20 percent surcharge per trooper for indirect costs, said Ted Zaleski, the county's budget director. For the fiscal year ending in June, the county budgeted $4.48 million for the program and planned a 5 percent increase for the next fiscal year, Zaleski said.
Until the early 1990s, the county paid 75 percent and the state covered the remaining 25 percent of the cost. The commissioners point to the growing financial burden on the county as another reason they have to plan ahead in paying for an increasing demand for police services.
"At one time, the resident trooper program was a very good deal for the county, which was much smaller 30 years ago," Minnich said. "It gave us good policing at a bargain rate in cooperation with the state. ... As time went on, it wasn't as good of a deal. ... It got to be a one-sided contract. It was no longer something that was in control of the county."
At the same time, the county is paying about half as much as it pays for the trooper program to operate the Sheriff's Office, which has about 61 deputies and other personnel. In the past several years, the more deputies have been hired to provide round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week policing, augmenting state police and municipal police efforts.
Tregoning, a former state police trooper who was stationed at the Westminster barracks when the trooper program began in 1974, said he thinks it's time for the responsibility for safeguarding the county to be shared with his department.
"The program was never designed to be the permanent law enforcement solution for any jurisdiction," he said. "It was designed to accommodate policing in those jurisdictions until local jurisdictions could afford policing of their own."
If the county commissioners decide to drop the program, Tregoning said, he would work with the barracks commander to figure out a way to balance the caseload.
"I will match the performance of our deputies with any law enforcement agency," he said. "There wouldn't be any drop-off in the level of service."
Whether it would be the Sheriff's Office or a new county police force, the issue has come before officials in the past. The Carroll County Police Force Study Committee recommended in 1992 that the county commissioners consider forming a county police force.
Financial projections at that time indicated that the county would have to spend about $11 million from 1992 to 1997 on its own police force. The group worked under the assumption that the resident trooper program would end at some point and the county should prepare for that reality.
The cost of operating a county police force does not please Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Republican and chairman of the Carroll delegation.
State police troopers "provide exemplary law enforcement," he said. "They are a bargain to the taxpayers," said Haines, who said he also plans to meet with state police officials.
In the meantime, Yinger, the Westminster barracks commander, said he wants to protecting the county's residents.
"To properly police Carroll County is my goal," he said. "This is a business decision with the county, deciding how best to spend their money. I can appreciate that."
Staff writers Athima Chansanchai, Jennifer McMenamin and Sheridon Lyons contributed to this article.