Tighter budgets put pinch on escorts


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Alabama's college football teams are better protected than its highways at times.

As many as 17 state troopers are busy escorting 10 different football teams and their coaches on any given Saturday this fall, according to the Department of Public Safety. That's about three times the number of troopers who typically patrol state highways at night.

Schools that request the escorts say they are needed, and paying for them wasn't a big deal for the state when the practice began in the late 1950s at Auburn University and the University of Alabama.
But faced with tight budgets and more requests for trooper escorts than ever, Alabama's Department of Public Safety is clamping down to make sure campus athletic departments -- not the cash-strapped agency -- pay for the officers.

Besides Auburn and Alabama, the state said it provides troopers to Troy State, North Alabama, Alabama A&M, Jacksonville State, UAB, West Alabama, Alabama State and Tuskegee University.

Costs of the trooper escorts vary by school. Some pay salaries, fuel, meals and motel expenses, while others pay little more than food and gas because the trooper donates the time.

North Alabama's athletic director, Joel Erdmann, said a trooper escort costs his school between $3,000 and $5,000 annually in lodging, food, fuel and salary for the officer.

"They eat with the team. They stay with the team at the motel," Erdmann said.

At Alabama, officials said they weren't sure of the cost of the team's two trooper escorts because their motel and food expenses are part of the squad's overall travel budget -- a common practice at schools responding to inquiries from The Associated Press.

Making it even harder to determine the cost at Alabama, the state hasn't asked to be reimbursed for troopers' fuel costs from last season.

"We never got a bill," said Finus Gaston, an associate athletics director who handles finances.
The state acknowledges it hasn't been diligent enough about seeking reimbursement from schools, which all have agreements with the department to pay for the costs of trooper escorts.

But that is changing this year because of an 18 percent cut in state funding, which already was so low that only a half-dozen or fewer troopers typically patrol state highways at night. The department has even put mannequins in parked patrol cars to deter speeders while saving money.

Schools this season were notified that they needed to pay more of the expenses, said Maj. Cary Sutton, chief of the department's services division.

"They have expressed a willingness to pay more of a share to keep things like they are," said Sutton, who has worked as an escort for the Alabama football team for 13 years.

Buddy Davidson, an assistant athletic director at Auburn, estimated that having two trooper escorts for the Tigers costs $2,300 annually in food and motel bills. Like at most schools, the officers accompany the team on road games and help with home games, too.

Troopers also escort the team buses through traffic and crowds, Davidson said, and they help players get through security quickly at airports when the squad is flying.

Auburn considers such help so important it hired private escorts for a game at the University of Southern California because the California Highway Patrol wouldn't supply officers, Davidson said.
"We've got four buses and 300 people we've got to get to the game and the airport on time. You'd never make it without them," he said.