Flaggers or police at work sites? Debate renewed in Concord

CONCORD — For the third time in five years, state lawmakers have presented a bill they say would save utility ratepayers millions by curtailing the use of uniformed police officers for traffic control at low-risk work sites.

Flaggers working for private traffic control companies at a much lower cost would be sufficient in most cases, according to state Department of Transportation guidelines, which are applied on state highways, the largest and busiest roads in New Hampshire.

“The difference costs PSNH customers more than a million a year in higher electric costs, at a time when we have some of the highest electric rates in the nation,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said in presenting SB 234 to the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

The bill is being sponsored in the House by Weare state Rep. Neal Kurk, chairman of the House Finance Committee, who proposed similar legislation in 2010, as did Bradley in 2012.

As with previous versions, SB 234 would require cities and towns that use police details on local roads to do so according to DOT guidelines, which state that “flaggers shall be used to the greatest extent possible.”

Representatives of the N.H. Police Association and the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police urged the committee to reject the idea for the same reasons it has been rejected twice before.

“Should this bill pass, it will be a major intrusion into local decision-making,”said Robert Blaisdell, the lobbyist for the police association.

Former Public Utilities Commissioner Michael Harrington, now a private energy consultant, told the committee that utilities, construction companies and others who occasionally need traffic control find a hodgepodge of regulations as they move from community to community.

In some communities, flaggers are allowed, even encouraged, while in others, police have first right of refusal on all details, with the chief making the decision.

“The costs are hidden,” Harrington said. “They are hidden in energy rates. No one sees a charge for this, but it has a large effect, in millions of dollars, because we have cable companies, gas companies who are also affected.

It’s the opposite of local control. It’s someone in one town telling people in other towns, ‘You have to pay higher rates and costs because we have decided to do this.’ It’s not a free lunch.”

High hourly rate

Bradley suggested the legislation could be amended to allow municipalities to require police details, but pay the difference in costs when the DOT rules call for flaggers instead.

Police unions have fought hard to maintain local control of the issue. The detail work pays police a high hourly rate, in the $40 to $50 range, with an additional $25 or more per hour tacked on by the town for benefits and “administrative charges.”

For many officers, the detail work enhances their annual earnings in the final years before retirement, thus increasing their retirement benefit, sometimes substantially.

“Currently, your local cities and towns actually make money on details,” Blaisdell said, alluding to the administrative fee and the money that goes toward police benefit costs. “The lost revenue and additional cost (to the town) may help ratepayers, but we know it would increase taxes for your constituents at the local level.”

Harrington said that would only happen if the community decides to continue with a police presence at work sites that do not fit the DOT guidelines.

Tilton Police Chief Robert Cormier, speaking on behalf of the chief’s association, said there are some secondary roads that are busier than main state roads, and that handling traffic has become more dangerous in an age of driver distraction.

“At the end of the day, for me it’s about safety,” he said. “If I can have (the utilities) get their job done out there without us, that’s great. As long as it’s not a safety issue.”

Call for common sense

Jeffrey Graham, CEO of New England Traffic Control Services, which hires flaggers, testified that he has always been puzzled by the safety argument.

“It’s ironic that during real public safety threats, like ice storms, hurricanes, floods, wind storms, our flaggers are working in every town across the state without incident, but when the storm ends, we are not allowed in,” he said.

“This is a reasonable bill that would lower costs to consumers, increase jobs and preserve public safety.”

Cordell Johnson, a lobbyist for the N.H. Municipal Association, said his group supports local control.

“On the other hand, we don’t support local control if it doesn’t make sense, and listening to some of the testimony, I can understand there needs to be some common sense applied,” he said. “There may be situations where municipalities are using police when they could be using flaggers.”

Sen. Nancy Stiles of Hampton, the committee chairman, asked Johnson to work with Harrington, Cormier and others who testified to, “figure something out, and get it back to us.”