The 2011-2012 budget called for extensive cuts across North Carolina in an array of different sectors, most of which provided a public service to the citizens of the state. With the controversy surrounding the spending reduction of the public educational system, as well as health and human services, other cuts went largely unnoticed. Here in Macon County, one that has had a subtle, yet significant impact on the citizens has come with the de-funding of the Highlands Magistrate position.
The Town of Highlands has a population of around 1,500 in the winter months which in the past, required the magistrate to preside only a few times during the week. That number grows significantly to more than 20,000 in the summer months and before the budget cuts took effect, required the service of a magistrate every day. With these latest cuts, Highlands has been left without a magistrate, for the first time in 30 years.
What may look like a short drive on a map is a much longer drive in reality. The nine-mile drive from Highlands actually ends up taking most drivers about 30 minutes to complete — an hour or more round trip — that is time that Highlands loses an officer on patrol. With only two officers working night shift, transporting an individual to the Sheriff's Department in Franklin leaves the town with only one officer.
Not only has the safety of the citizens become an issue as a result of this budget, but there is also the issue of convenience. Macon County was ordered to eliminate 1.5 magistrate positions last fall, one full time position in Franklin, and the half came in the form of Pat Taylor, the on-call magistrate of Highlands for 10 years, leaving only three full time magistrates to cover the whole county.
“In North Carolina, a citizen is supposed to be able to see a magistrate right away. Within an hour in most cases,” declared Taylor. “It could lead to some [legal] problems eventually.”
No holding facility exists in Highlands, but in most cases of a misdemeanor charge, it is common for a person to be processed and then bonded out. Now, an officer must drive a suspect down the mountain to the Sheriff’s Office to be processed and often transported back at taxpayers’ expense, taking what could be hours of the officer's time, leaving the neighboring town under-staffed.
According to a resolution penned to state officials by the Macon County commissioners in 2011, travel time would increase significantly and possibly become prohibited completely if weather conditions were to become dangerous in the event of snow, ice, rain and/or fog, which are likely to occur during the winter months of the year considering that the town sits at an elevation of 3,382 feet.
Last Saturday, Feb. 2, during the first significant snow shower of the year, an incident occurred involving an intoxicated driver who had to be transported down the mountain in order to be processed.
“Normally he would have been booked and processed at our police department and then most likely bonded out,” stated Highlands Police Chief Bill Harrell. “It is definitely putting a strain on man power. There's not many inspirational things I can say about it. It is a safety concern.”
The loss of the Highlands magistrate cannot be rectified by local officials. The county commissioners can only do so much to bring this position back. They can lobby state representatives, but ultimately, immediate action is impossible as Macon County waits to see what the next budget passed by the North Carolina General Assembly holds.
“Hopefully we'll get it put back in the budget this year,” Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said. “I understand the need for cuts in the state budget. The county budget is smaller today than it was five years ago, but I think when you have critical situations like in law enforcement you have to be real careful where you make those cuts.”
When asked about the 2013-2015 biennial budget, the Hon. John W. Smith, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, stated that the AOC will be asking for the restoration of 28 magistrate positions statewide. Now county officials must wait to see if one of those will be the Highlands magistrate.