Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland requested a $19,000 increase in his department's budget to purchase drugs for undercover operations. During Macon County’s board retreat last month, department heads presented commissioners with a preview of what to expect during the upcoming budget cycle. Holland informed commissioners that a new request this year would be to increase the existing $1,000 provided by the county to purchase drugs used during undercover operations, to a total of $20,000.
Holland insisted that the additional monies are crucial in fighting the county’s drug problem. The $1,000 line item specifically for the sheriff’s office undercover drug operations has remained the same since it was first established in the 1990s. Holland pleaded with commissioners, explaining that undercover drug buys have proved to be the most effective method in fighting the county’s drug problem and stands as the best way to provide evidence during a trial to lead to convictions.
Commissioner Paul Higdon spoke to the importance of keeping drugs off the street of Macon County. Higdon noted that he believed that focusing on the meth problem in Macon County should be considered a higher priority than speeders or putting school resource officers in schools.
Holland agreed that while meth is a substantial problem in Macon County, as well as other western North Carolina counties, locally, the largest drug problem is the trafficking of prescription drugs.
In addition to the county’s $1,000 commitment to the sheriff’s department, Holland explained that his team has access to a special revenue account that acquires funds based on items seized during undercover operations. That account is essentially controlled by the state, and after going through a vetting process, a portion of money or other items that can be auctioned for funds once seized by Macon County officers, is returned to the county. The special money is provided to law enforcement specifically for undercover investigations of narcotics, stolen goods and payment to confidential informants.
In special circumstances, Holland and his team have access to additional funds for operations through federal and state dollars, but to access those cases, the operation must be considerably large. Holland asked the commissioners to provide funds to focus on the local effort to eradicate drugs in Macon County. According to Holland, his department often get leads and is turned on to cases of drugs within the county, but has to pass on the case due to the lack of adequate funding and resources to conduct an operation of the magnitude needed to ensure a conviction.
Understanding that a $19,000 increase in this one line item is significant, Holland assured commissioners that he would be able to account for every dollar and show its impact in eradicating drugs in the county. “Give me two years; we will be able to account for every dime that the $20,000 goes for drug investigation,” said Holland. “At the end of the two years, if we have not shown progressive progression of what we used that $20,000 for, take it away from us and don’t give us the money.”
In addition to funds to purchase things needed for undercover operations, Holland informed commissioners that he would once again ask for five new patrol cars. Continuing to replace the county’s law enforcement fleet on a rotating basis is a top priority for Holland. With a fleet of 25 patrol cars, the vehicles average 25,000 miles a year. Seven of the county’s existing patrol cars have crossed over the 100,000 mile mark, and for a patrol car expected to perform duties differently than the average vehicle, 100,000 is a considerable amount.
The Macon County Sheriff’s Department recently experienced a problem with the patrol cars, when an officer responding to a call regarding shots fired in Nantahala, broke down on the side of the road. His vehicle could not sustain the drive to Nantahala, delaying Macon County’s response to what could have been a deadly situation.
Holland did assure commissioners that his department manages the cars within the departments as best as possible, and as vehicles age and garner excess miles, the vehicles are swapped with positions that travel less such as school resource officers. The cars that have been identified as needing to be replaced were marked as priority by the county’s maintenance supervisor, as the maintenance department is in charge of any and all recommendations regarding vehicle replacement.
Making a commitment to school safety, Holland began last year urging commissioners to consider providing school resource officers at every school in the county. Understanding the tight budget and increasing demands on the county level, Holland noted that he understands that it is not financially feasible to provide a school resource officer at every school in one year. Last year Holland requested two SROs, one for Nantahala School, and another that would split time between Union Academy and South Macon Elementary. Commissioners approved funding for one officer, which was placed at Union and South Macon.
Holland, who saw a need for a school resource officer at Nantahala, re-organized his officers in order to accommodate the position to meet that need. During the retreat, Holland informed the board, that under the advice of commissioners, he explored grant opportunities to help fund that position, and his attempts had been successful. Macon County Schools and Holland were awarded a grant totaling $39,722 in state funds to place a full time officer in Nantahala. In order for the grant to be allocated to the county, a local governmental match of $18,185 was needed.
Higdon said that he was against using funds in the current year’s budget for the position because it had been previously discussed that the Nantahala position would be part of the 2014-15 budget year discussion. Holland said that the grant money had to be used during this budget cycle.
In a 4-1 vote, commissioners approved to allocate the funds needed to secure the position in Nantahala. Higdon was the opposing vote.
County’s economic future looks bright
Among the department heads presenting to commissioners was Economic Development Director Tommy Jenkins. Jenkins told commissioners that one point of focus in coming years for development within the county should remain on the county’s healthcare offerings. Between the addition of the DaVita Dialysis Center, the MAMA expansion at Angel Medical Center and the the partnership affiliation between Mission Health System and Angel Medical Center and Highlands- Cashiers Hospital, Macon County is becoming a healthcare hub for the western part of the state. For the Highlands area, Jenkins told commissioners that Old Edwards Inn and Spa would also be expanding after acquiring a local lodging facility. The expansion is expected to offer similar luxury options that Old Edwards has become known for internationally, but with more affordable pricing.
Another point of focus for economic development opportunities county-wide is the recreational facilities, explained Jenkins. Not only has Macon County moved to a commitment to a state-of-the-art recreation complex in Parker Meadows, that is expected to generate significant revenue for local industries, other outdoor recreation destinations have grown such as Macon County being designated as an Appalachian Trail Community and the success of the new Highlands Aerial Park. Compared to the six far-western counties, Jenkins informed commissioners that Macon County continues to be a leader in retail sales.