State budget cuts reduce troopers available to enforce highway safety in WNC
North Carolina’s public sector is being scaled back significantly, attested by the 2011-2013 state budget, which imposed cuts to numerous programs and state agencies. One such agency, The North Carolina State Highway Patrol (NCHP), is facing large budget reductions that could potentially transform the way the agency operates.
Troopers across the state, including those in Macon and Jackson counties, will be forced to cope and adapt to declining resources, as it may represent the new permanent reality of the public sector environment. In practical terms, the recession and state austerity measures will culminate into more stress for state troopers, according to NCHP public information officer Jeff Gordon.
“It does have an effect on the men and women out there working,” said NCHP Sergeant Jeff Gordon. “It’s really an officer safety issue. When a trooper has to work alone with no back-up, they have to be ready for anything. That’s what we are telling the new cadets. They must be ready to take on more responsibility with little help. That’s just the reality of what we are dealing with. But I still think we will be able to work effectively, and I strongly believe that our agency will still be able to carry out organizational objectives,” he said.
The NCHP has a $197 million budget for this fiscal year, a reduction of about $8 million from the previous year. They are scheduled to lose a total of $15 million in funding in the next two years, which could be devastating considering the agency has suffered through $28 million worth of budget cuts in the past two years.
“We are no different than any other state agency. It seems that everyone is having to tighten their belts in response to budget cuts, and only time will tell how this will affect transportation in North Carolina,” said Sergeant Gordon. “Realistically, if you have less boots on the ground, that means you will have less eyes and ears out there to ensure safe transportation. One thing is certain, we will not change how we serve North Carolinians.”
County sheriff’s departments may be called upon more frequently as state troopers struggle with diminished manpower. “My concern is that if they keep cutting the NCHP, our Sheriff’s department is going to have to take on more responsibilities,” said Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “That means Maconians are going to have to pay more taxes for public safety operations. That’s why I’m concerned. We also have a few troopers in Macon County who are set to retire soon, so if they keep cutting, we could be in trouble,” said Beale.
“In my 20 years of experience, we have always had a good relationship with county sheriff’s departments, and I think they will be there when we need them in the future,” said Sergeant Gordon. “But they have their own jobs and priorities to take care of, so we can’t assume that they can take on more responsibilities.”
North Carolina Senator Jim Davis has a somewhat different perspective on the present condition of the NCHP. “The legislature recommended for the NCHP to cut 85 positions at their headquarters in Raleigh. They seem to be top heavy with administrative positions. They also were not very forthcoming about their agency during the budget process. They were very secretive for some reason. So when we made cuts, they finally decided to come to the table. We will be meeting with their colonel and other agency officials soon, so we should have more information in the next couple of weeks,” said Senator Davis.
In response to the budget cuts, agency administrators have implemented hiring and salary freezes, postponed promotions, and halted departmental transfers. The basic training course for new state troopers has been canceled indefinitely. According to Sgt. Gordon, the state pays $100,000 to put a cadet through the 29-week academy, and agency administrators hope that the suspension of the basic training course will enable the NCHP to save money in the short term.
In the long term, it is hard to be optimistic. The state agency graduated 38 cadets last Friday, welcoming news to overburdened troopers currently in the field. However, the agency is 102 troopers short of being fully staffed, and that number will likely increase next year as the agency adjusts to declining resources. Furthermore, the NCHP loses approximately seven to nine troopers a month statewide due to retirements and resignations.
“The suspension of our school may hurt us, because it goes back to having adequate manpower on the ground,” said Sgt. Gordon. “It may have adverse effects on collision reports and response times, among other things. Internally, we are already driving our vehicles for longer periods of time, using outmoded equipment for longer periods of time, and taking on the same workload with fewer resources. It is a tough time for everyone right now, but I think we will still have the human resource capacity to provide quality service, despite the cutbacks.”
When asked in early August if public safety would be in jeopardy, Sergeant Gordon stated, “for me to sit here and say it’s not, I wouldn’t be telling the truth. Anytime you have less manpower on the highways, you’re not going to have those eyes and ears that are out there.”
According to the North Carolina Crime Control and Public Safety website, the NCHP has 2,355 positions. The agency operates in eight separate divisions statewide, with Macon and Jackson Counties being in Troop G, districts V and VI respectively. Western North Carolina’s district is fully staffed, except for two open positions in Swain County.