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How much policing is too much? Maggie leaders try to strike balance

fr maggiepoliceIt was Groundhog Day again for the Maggie Valley Police Department.

Last year, Police Chief Scott Sutton defended his department and officers against claims that the force is too large and its budget should be slashed. This year was no different.


The board of aldermen approved a more than $900,000 police budget — a $50,000 increase compared to last year — but only after two aldermen, Mike Matthews and Phillip Wight, relented on calls for a 10 percent cut to the department’s budget.

At the heart of the issue is an argument about whether the police department is too big for a town of Maggie Valley’s size. Proponents of the cuts have called the police presence in Maggie Valley overbearing, but Sutton wondered what would happen if the cops scaled back and an accident happens or someone decides to bring a weapon somewhere.

“How can we say in one breath, ‘OK, we are going to lay off,’ and then, you get people down here who are hurt?” Sutton said, citing an incident where a woman driving through the valley crossed into oncoming traffic and hit a car with two kids from Cherokee. All three were hospitalized.

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Although neither aldermen went as far as to ask to cut police staff, the majority of a police department’s budget funds salaries and wages. A $90,000 cut may have forced the chief to cut a position or some employee benefits.

Residents and business owners who are complaining only see a limited view of what the police department does, according to the chief. The department goes on calls to check on elderly residents and has one officer dedicated to the DARE anti-drug program for schools. 

“Those 400-something kids down there and those parents — it makes a difference,” Sutton said.

They would also feel differently about the police if they were victims of a crime and needed help. If the force was scaled back, response time could suffer.

“When you need a police officer, do you want them to be there within four minutes or do you want them to be there within 20 minutes?” Sutton said.


Public relations

The Maggie Valley Police Department currently has 10 officers, including the chief and one detective. It is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation, meaning it has at least one officer patrolling per shift. The department keeps one officer on the road during the day two at night. However, more cops are on duty during big events such as the upcoming Red, White and Boom, which attracts thousands to Maggie Valley.

People who favor the cuts have repeatedly cited information from the N.C. League of Municipalities, which says that towns need 2.4 officers for every 1,000 residents. According to census data, Maggie Valley only has 1,146 residents.

By that figure Maggie Valley has more than one cop per 100 people. However, the census does not account for second-home owners and tourists.

According to the census, two-third of the town’s homes are vacant. Subtracting for actual vacant homes and rental properties, Maggie Valley’s population is at least double what the census pegs it at, if not more — increasing the resident-to-officer ratio.

But that doesn’t include the tourists who ebb and flow through Maggie Valley during different times of the year.

“They have a large tourist population,” Gerard Ball, a regional director for the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the Clyde Police Department.

During the winter, Cataloochee Ski Resort may have 2,000 skiers and snowboarders visiting, which right there triples the population of Maggie Valley. The same is true during the summer month, particularly when motorcycle rallies bring a few thousand bikers to the valley.

When you take all the variables into account, Sutton argued, the department works with a pretty barebones operation.

If an officer is called to the scene of an accident, he or she will have to interview all involved and if a person is injured, travel with them to the hospital. If it occurs during the day, that leaves no one to patrol the town while the officer is busy.

“That is fine if you have no calls,” Sutton said.

Proponents of trimming back the police department have argued that the police sit outside or near restaurants and bars, and it affects their ability to draw customers.

Sutton denied that.

“We spend the majority of our time with the residents,” Sutton said.

However, it is undeniable that Maggie Valley Police Department has garnered a reputation for pulling people over as they leave the bars and setting up checkpoints on U.S. 19 going toward Waynesville — a reputation the department seems stuck with.

“That is probably their problem,” said Topsail Beach Police Chief Samuel Gervase.

One way to change that is to get out and educate the public on what the department does as well as do little things, like helping old ladies bring their groceries into their homes to generate some positive PR, Gervase suggested.

“That goes a long way,” he said, adding that his department has no such problems because of its good relationship with community members.

In fact, in Topsail, a town of only about 550 year-round residents, the town board is actually expanding the police department from seven officers to eight. During hot summer days, the chief estimated that the small town swells to 12,000, which strains the department.

“We are spread so thin that we can’t keep up,” Gervase said.


Not alone

Over in Highlands, the police department there faces the same stigma. The town has a year-round population of less than 1,000 residents, according to the U.S. census.

And like Maggie Valley, that number does not include the second-home population or tourists. On a good day during the busy season, Highlands Police Chief Bill Harrell estimated that the number of people in Highlands swells to about 15,000.

However since the population is so low during the off-season, Harrell combats remarks about his 10-officer operation being too large.

“We get a lot of the same negative comments, and we have to continue to forge ahead knowing we are doing the right thing,” Harrell said. “(Naysayers) don’t realize what things you do that make their quality of life.”

One difference between Maggie Valley and Highlands, however, is that Highlands is more than 6 square miles, whereas the valley is only 1.6 square miles.

“It is a large area to cover a lot of times with just two officers,” Harrell said of Highlands, adding that given the town’s remote location, his department often responds to calls outside its jurisdiction as part of a mutual aid agreement with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office. It just depends on who is closer.

According to Harrell, the Highlands Police Department received more than 1,000 calls a month during the busy season. From December to late March, the number drops to a few hundred, he said.

No matter how big the population is, however, if only one cop is on duty and there are multiple calls, he or she may not be able dedicate enough time to each call. If the officer is responding to a theft call but gets a call about an accident, the officer might have to leave the victim in the lurch.

“Our job is, when someone is the victim of something, to provide them with the best service we can,” Sutton said. “The last thing we want is somebody to go back to wherever and say, ‘Don’t go to Maggie Valley because we got our purse stolen and they didn’t do nothing about it.’”


Police jalopies

Also on the chopping block again this year were vehicle purchases. The town typically replaces the two oldest vehicles every year; by the time the vehicles cycle around for replacement they are about six years old.

During last year’s budget talks, all the aldermen came to the agreement to postpone replacing two of the aging vehicles for a year. Then this year, they would buy two new cars.

But Matthews and Wight wanted to delay purchasing new vehicles again. If that had happened, the cars that the police department expected to replace a year ago would be eight or nine years old.



Comparing sizes

People who have called for Maggie Valley leaders to cut the police budget, complaining that it is too large, have often referred to information put out by the N.C. League of Municipalities as evidence. The league says that towns need 2.4 officers for every 1,000 residents, according to proponents of the cuts. But by that standard, other departments are bloated as well.

Waynesville’s population is about 9,800, according to most recent U.S. Census data. The town employs 34 officers — but using the N.C. League of Municipalities’ residents-to-officer ratio, it should only have about 24.

Canton, which has a population of about 4,200 people, should have 10 officers by that standard. It has 14.

Similar to Maggie Valley, both towns have tourist and second-home populations that come and go throughout the year.

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