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News Local and state officials fight to save Highlands magistrate position

After being informed of the mandatory state cut of 1.5 magistrate positions in Macon County by Clerk of Court Vic Perry, Macon County Sheriff Robert L. Holland and Highlands Chief of Police Bill Harrell approached the Board of Commissioners during their monthly meeting last week and asked for help in their attempt to retain the part-time magistrate position in Highlands, currently held by Pat Taylor.

Officials on the state level have also banded together to send a message to the state emphasizing the importance of the Highlands position. Senator Jim Davis supports Macon County’s leadership and is joining the effort to help save the magistrate position. “I am already working to save the magistrate position,” assured Davis. “I fully support the resolution passed by the commissioners, and now it is just about finding the money.”

According to Representative Phil Haire, the magistrate position is something he fought for years ago and plans to continue his efforts on the state level. “It’s very important to retain that position in particular because, although the population of Highlands is 1,500 in the winter, it soars to 20,000-25,000 in the summer months,” explained Haire. “It is a terrible drain on law enforcement when they have to run up and down the mountain.” Haire has clipped newspaper articles from local media outlets and sent them, along with a letter, urging the state to get on board with saving Taylor’s position in Highlands to high ranking state officials and judges who can be instrumental in retaining the position.

Taylor has worked for Highlands for nearly a decade and works on an on-call basis, which results in the majority of his work being done in the a.m. hours. If his position is eliminated, the $20,000 that stands to be saved becomes irrelevant after the estimated financial obligations that would develop to compensate for the position loss. “The $20,000 they think they would save, I can guarantee we are going to spend that in travel time,” Holland said.

The proposed position cut is yet another reflection of the budget cuts being ordered from the state that will become effective in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. The state has informed Macon County that 1.5 of the current 4.5 magistrate positions must be eliminated effective Dec. 31, 2012.

Holland and Harrell informed county commissioners of a letter they had sent to Judge John Smith, director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts in regards to their opposition of the elimination of the magistrate position in Macon County. The letter was used by the county’s attorney to serve as the basis for a resolution that the board unanimously voted to adopt.

The county is not disputing the mandatory cut of one of the four magistrate position in Franklin. According to the resolution passed last week, Franklin will be able to adapt to losing one fulltime magistrate as proposed by the state.

“We appreciate the financial circumstances that all levels of government must deal with in the current economic crisis and understand the need to eliminate a full-time magistrate position in Franklin,” reads the letter. “However, we are worried about the unintended consequences that will result from the decision to eliminate the part-time magistrate position assigned to the Town of Highlands.”

Commissioner Bob Kuppers noted that like so many other regulations coming from the state level, this budget cut should be left to the county because of the varying degrees of topography and special circumstances. “This is just another one of those things, another one of those inconveniences with money that they are not passing down to the counties,” said Kuppers.

“As a county commissioner for 10 years, I can definitely understand the frustration of unfunded state mandates being passed down to the county from the state level that lack the understanding of the special circumstances of the geography of Macon County,” said Senator Davis.

Sheriff Holland agreed with Kuppers. “... and they didn’t think that the opinion of the local government mattered and they just did it.”

“It would be an understatement to say the hardships it would present for all of Macon County, not only for law enforcement, but also the magistrate there on the civil side of things ... it would be a travesty for the entire county,” stressed Harrell.

As pointed out in both the letter addressed to Judge Smith and the resolution adopted by the commissioners, eliminating the parttime position will inevitably create financial hardships for both the Macon County Sheriff’s Office and the Highlands Police Department, as well as serious safety concern for citizens.

“First I would like to say that I am fully supportive of this [retaining the part-time position] for a couple of reasons, the first being safety and a close second, financial,” said Board Chairman Brian McClellan. According to McClellan, about 80 percent of the on-call work done by the magistrate takes place around 3 a.m. McClellan also explained that there are only two night time officers in Highlands, and without a magistrate, the Town would lose half of its coverage if they had to transport each arrest from Highlands to Franklin to see the magistrate.

Commissioner Kevin Corbin explained that for those who aren’t familiar with the terrain of Macon County, the 20.5-mile distance between Franklin and Highlands seems innocent. “On a map, if you take your finger and measure, it looks like it is the same distance from Highlands to Franklin as it is from Raleigh to Chapel Hill. Well it’s a little different road,” said Corbin.

According to the resolution, it takes approximately one hour and 12 minutes, in ideal weather conditions, to complete a round trip from Highlands to Franklin. The travel time involved increases significantly and may not be possible at all during snow, ice, rain and fog, which are all inevitable factors to be considered due to the 3,832 feet of Highlands elevation in the winter months.

According to Commissioner Ronnie Beale, the decision of retaining the Highlands magistrate is an easy one. “It just makes common sense,” he explained. “If you eliminate that position you would leave the area handicapped, without law enforcement.” Beale noted that the amount of money that is suggested to be saved from the cut would be irrelevant after adding the cost of law enforcement that would be needed to make up for the cut.

After gaining the support of the county commissioners, Sheriff Holland and Police Chief Harrell now plan to ask for a resolution to be passed by the Highlands Board of Commissioners and are seeking the support of local state representatives, such as Sen. Jim Davis and Rep. Roger West.

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