A group of current and retired law enforcement officers from around the region came to Legislative Hall last week to make the case for pay increases they say are long overdue for the corps of enforcement officers serving in the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.


A group of current and retired law enforcement officers from around the region came to Legislative Hall last week to make the case for pay increases they say are long overdue for the corps of enforcement officers serving in the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

During DNREC’s annual hearing before the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee Feb. 15, advocates said the agency is losing experienced, highly-trained officers to local police departments that can pay them much higher salaries, even at the entry level.

They also testified DNREC pays its enforcement officers so little that, in some cases, they qualify for food stamps.

“These officers are trained to perform their duties with the highest degree of professionalism. One caveat to that professionalism is that they are grossly underpaid,” said Ron Mears, a retired state trooper and a member of DNREC’s Parks and Recreation Council.

Gov. Jack Markell’s recommended budget includes no plans to raise pay for DNREC officers.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, a starting DNREC enforcement officer makes $28,522 per year. At the top end of the scale, DNREC’s chief enforcement officer makes $52,433 per year.

In total, DNREC has 60 enforcement officers organized into units that include park rangers, fish and wildlife agents, and environmental control personnel.

Mears said the average starting pay for similar positions in neighboring states is closer to $40,000 per year.

Capt. Bob Davis of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, told the JFC that even a quick comparison of what DNREC officers are paid compared to their counterparts elsewhere, as well as other Delaware law enforcement officers, reveals a significant inequity.

“I was quite astounded at the disparity between the conservation law enforcement officers and other law enforcement officers, quite frankly I was embarrassed for the conservation officers,” he said.

In Delaware, a state trooper makes more than $41,000 per year during training, and then gets bumped to more than $48,000 once training is completed. A newly recruited member of the Delaware Capitol Police makes $38,000 per year.

Rep. John L. “Larry” Mitchell Jr., D-Elsmere, a member of the JFC, said DNREC is wasting money training officers that are simply going to head for jobs at other law enforcement agencies as soon as they can.

According to Mitchell, the attrition rate for DNREC officers is around 20%.

“It’s happened over a number of years where we have not kept those salaries up,” he said. “It really troubles me that we have law enforcement officers out doing a job on the street, and you have your [DNREC] people out doing the same job and we’re paying them drastically reduced salaries.”

At the hearing, DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara acknowledged his agency’s retention problem.

“These are guys that do put their lives on the line, I am concerned about our ability to retain some of these folks, we’re looking for creative ways to do that,” he said.

Without committing to pushing for higher pay, O’Mara said he would look for ways to make the job of DNREC enforcement officer more attractive by cutting down on administrative duties and allowing officers more time to work in the field.

But, Davis said the state’s budget writers need to commit to putting those officers on an equal footing in terms of pay.

“If natural resources are important to this state, and I’m quite sure they are, please give that consideration when you’re talking about compensation for your conservation officers,” he said.

Email Doug Denison at doug.denison@doverpost.com