Moore County's Board of Commissioners have turned down a bid by Sheriff Neil Godfrey to create a four-officer traffic enforcement team with a potential yearly price tag of nearly $250,000.
The vote came in a Tuesday, January 27 Special Meeting of the Board called to consider the Sheriff's request to apply for two state grants. The first grant would have partially funded the traffic enforcement team for three years.
A second grant application, which was approved by the Commissioners, will allow the Sheriff's Office to add a drug diversion investigator, focused on prescription drug abuse, to the existing narcotics division.
Maybe next year
Though they declined to support the Sheriff's application for a $477,523 grant from the Governor's Highway Safety Program this year, the Commissioners did not close the door permanently.
Chairman Nick Picerno explained that the county is in the midst of a revaluation of all real estate for tax purposes — and early indications are that the overall assessed value of property in the county will decline. That will lower the tax base — and also lower county property tax revenues, unless the Commissioners agree to raise the tax rate, something they have pledged not to do.
Picerno said he was also aware, based on preliminary budget conversations with Sheriff Godfrey, that the Sheriff's Office will need to add personnel at the detention center and replace some aging vehicles in the next budget cycle.
"If you're adding cost, you're going to have to pay for it," Picerno told his fellow Commissioners. "And we already know that, if we keep our commitment to keep the tax rate where it is, we are going to have less revenue — and the cost of health care, our employees, is all going to go up."
Picerno suggested that the proposed grant application be brought back to the Commissioners next year — and also suggested that the Sheriff and Commissioners look at any additional staffing needs during the upcoming FY2016 budget process.
Picerno ultimately put that suggestion in the form of a motion that was unanimously approved by the Board.
Big jump in fatalities
Patrol Captain Andy Conway made the case for a traffic enforcement team by pointing to the huge jump in highway fatalities in Moore County last year and to the benefits the county received when it previously created a traffic enforcement team, in 2004 and 2005.
Conway said local media had reported a total of twenty-eight traffic accident fatalities in the county in 2014, and said he had confirmed twenty-six of those in conversations with municipal law enforcement agencies.
The average number of fatalities in the three previous years had been only 8.5, Conway said.
He explained that the Sheriff's Office received a Governor's Highway Safety Grant in 2004 and 2005, when traffic fatalities in the county were averaging eighteen per year. He said the enforcement effort that resulted from the grant dropped that average to twelve per year, and the number had continued to decline until this year's spike.
Sheriff Godfrey told the Commissioners that former Sheriff Lane Carter had eventually assigned members of the 2004-2005 traffic enforcement team to other patrol duties. But Conway noted that sheriff's deputies have continued to perform traffic enforcement, increasing motorist safety on county roadways.
During the four-year period when the traffic enforcement team was working full time on that mission, Conway said, they wrote more than 7,000 traffic citations. In a more recent four year period, deputies have issued 2,700 citations.
Asked about the effect of delaying the application for one year, Conway said the unfortunate spike in fatalities last year would add weight to the county's application this year.
A step-down program
The Governor's Highway Safety Grant program is a "step-down" program, in which the state pays for a decreasing percentage of the cost each year.
The first year cost of the traffic enforcement program, which included not only salaries and benefits for a sergeant and three officers, but also vehicles and equipment, would have totaled $477,523, with the county picking up fifteen percent, or $71,629.
In years two, three, and four, the salary and benefits cost would have totaled $243,247, with the county picking up thirty percent in year two, fifty percent in year three, and the entire amount in year four. In addition, as equipment and vehicles needed to be replaced, the county would have been responsible for one hundred percent of that cost.
Sheriff Godfrey said the grant would help his office address speeding problems in unincorporated areas of the county, including Seven Lakes.
Conway said the traffic enforcement team would also focus on school zones at Union Pines and North Moore High Schools, as well as Crains Creek Middle School.
Under the terms of the grant, the officers would conduct seatbelt and DWI check points, as well as offering driver education programs in the high schools.
Conway presented a second alternative that would have started with a two-officer team and then added two more in the second or third year of the program. While that option met with approval from Commissioner Otis Ritter and Randy Saunders, ultimately, the uncertainty surrounding property tax revenues after the revaluation trumped other concerns.
Narcotics grant application approved
The Commissioners unanimously approved, during the special meeting, the Sheriff's request to file an application for a Governor's Crime Commission Grant in the amount of $172,103 to hire and equip a Drug Diversion Investigator.
The state would pick up seventy-five percent of that cost; the county's share would amount to just under $25,000 in the first year. If the year one grant is successful, the Sheriff's office will file for a salary and benefits-only grant in the second year, with a total value of $72,126. The county share of that would amount to just over $18,000.
One aspect of the proposal that made it more palatable to Commissioners was that the county share of the cost would be paid for by using drug forfeiture funds, lessening the impact on the county budget.
Chief Deputy Jerrell Seawell explained that the abuse of prescription medications is a growing problem nationwide — and in Moore County. While the current narcotics division of the Sheriff's Office has been actively working on the problem since 2004, Seawell said, existing narcotics officers must also deal with cases involving "street drugs."
Having a full-time officer dedicated to drug diversion would "greatly increase enforcement in the area of prescription pills," he said.
Seawell said the drug diversion investigator would work to enhance the network of pharmacists, health care providers, and others who assist the sheriff's office in identifying possible prescription pill abuses, as well as enhancing educational efforts around the problem.
Chairman Picerno, who is the longest serving of the current Commissioners, said that, as the county has grown, the number of positions in the Sheriff's Department, aside from the detention center, has "been pretty static."
"This is one way we could add a position in the Sheriff's Department and phase it in with help from the state," he said.
"Coming from the court system, I understand your need," Commissioner Catherine Graham said. "It touches every family — not just the downtrodden but all the way up the spectrum."