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Haywood commissioners support tax hike to fund school resource officers

Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke addresses commissioners during a May 15 board meeting. Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke addresses commissioners during a May 15 board meeting. Haywood County photo

Absent any meaningful gun legislation by the North Carolina General Assembly or by Congress, the cost of protecting Haywood County’s children from being gunned down at their desks will now fall squarely upon county taxpayers, once a tax increase in next year’s proposed budget gets the final OK from commissioners.

“The things that are driving this are all related to expanding the school resource officer program,” County Manager Bryant Morehead told commissioners on May 15.

The request, made in Morehead’s preliminary 2023-24 budget, would provide for eight additional school resource officers at a cost of $1.48 million. Of that, $763,000 would be appropriated for salaries, $112,000 for operating expenses and another $600,000 for vehicles and equipment.

Last August, Haywood County Schools Superintendent Trevor Putnam told The Smoky Mountain News that for the 15 schools in Haywood County, including eight elementary schools, there are seven SROs who rotate and provide coverage.

That leaves a critical gap in protection — mostly at those elementary schools — and all but eliminates any deterrent effect that SROs may have on potential school shooters, because it’s not guaranteed than an armed officer would immediately be present to confront a shooter.

“We don’t have full-time coverage at every school, and we have a lot of schools that are very rural, out-of-the-way,” said Chairman Kevin Ensley. “It would take law enforcement several minutes to get there.”

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During an Aug. 15, 2022, board meeting, Barry Peppers, a retired Air Force officer and pilot, expressed frustration during public comment at a commission meeting, saying that “the day and the time has come to stop this insanity of not having armed police in our schools.”

Ensley responded to Peppers, saying that commissioners had explored the issue in previous years.

“I think we looked at that about six or seven years ago,” Ensley said. “It was going to be about a penny on the tax rate … about $20 to $30 per taxpayer is what we figured at that time. And I remember that because Bill Hollingsed, who was the chief of police at Waynesville, said that he would be willing to pay an extra $20 or $30 to make sure a resource officer was in every school. I agree with him, but I didn’t have the support to pass that, but it would be about a penny on the tax rate.”

Since then, that penny has grown to 1.5 cents, which would enable the county to raise the money needed each year to fund the positions.

Commissioner Brandon Rogers asked Morehead during his presentation what the individual cost per household might be. Turns out, it’s about the price of a cup of coffee a month.

In context, the increase of 1.5 cents per $100 in assessed property valuation would cost someone with a $250,000 home an additional $37.50 each year, above and beyond their annual tax payment of $1,337.50.

“The easy math is about $3 a month,” Morehead said.

The Violence Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research outlet funded by the National Institute of Justice, says there have been 190 school shootings in the United States since 1966, resulting in 1,364 deaths.

One of those deaths, that of Haywood County native Riley Howell, occurred in 2019 when Howell rushed a classroom gunman at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, saving many lives in exchange for his own.

The shooter in that incident allegedly had a developmental disability, but purchased the gun used in the shooting legally. His grandfather told WBTV at the time that if his grandson wasn’t able to secure access to a gun, “this would never have happened.”

More than 46% of mass shooters in the United States purchased their weapons legally, according to The Violence Project.

In late February, Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA) sponsored the AR-15 National Gun Act, which would designate the rifle (chambered in either .223 Remington  or 5.56x45mm NATO) as the “National Gun of the United States.” Clyde is joined as a sponsor on the bill by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Rep George Santos (R-NY) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).

Most recently, a shooter killed three nine-year-old children and three adults at an elementary school in Nashville on March 27. The shooter was under doctor’s care at the time for an “emotional disturbance” but used three legally purchased firearms, including an AR-15, to murder their victims before being killed by police.

North Carolina’s response, on March 30, was to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill eliminating the need for a pistol purchase permit, which involved criminal history checks and character evaluations.

The proposed Haywood County tax increase is a big ask in tough economic times, as inflation continues to squeeze governments, businesses and taxpayers.

The county also expects to take a revenue hit next year, when the impact of the century-old paper mill in Canton shutting down will become more certain, although the current budget presented by Morehead for 2023-24 is otherwise balanced — without the inclusion of the new SROs.

“I hate talking about an [ad valorem tax rate] increase more than anything, but I also hate not protecting our kids as well,” said Commissioner Brandon Rogers. “We’ve got to take care of our kids and watch after them and take the steps that we can take to be sure they’re protected. Knowing that’s roughly, on a $250,000 home, $37 for the year is not too bad, even though I don’t like it still. But like I said, I don’t like not taking care of our kids as well.”

Commissioner Jennifer Best said funding the SRO positions was vital to the community.

“To not make a political statement in any way, it is definitely challenging to be faced with making a decision on a tax increase, but I feel very strongly about how we protect the most innocent of our citizens. It has now become the norm. We turn on the news or get notifications on our phone and it is an almost daily occurrence. From my seat, and likely from the gentlemen that I serve with, I think it would live with us forever if we did not make the right decision trying to fund that SRO program.”

Morehead thinks that hiring and training all eight SROs by the start of the school year would be tough.

Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke, who appeared at the meeting, said he’d utilize a phased approach, and that he had enough SROs on hand to staff maybe four of the eight schools. Wilke also said that he’d send six to eight deputies to school at Haywood Community College in July, resulting in their qualification as SROs. Specialized training for law enforcement officers wanting to serve in schools is critical, Wilke said.

“These are not easy things for me to share with you. I will just be as honest as I can. There’s a great challenge in this for me because typically school resource officers had some experience, were probably close to retirement, they had great communication skills, knew the families and were integrated into the community in a way that most deputies or police officers weren’t. We still need that,” Wilke said. “But what we also need is a combat soldier. We need someone that’s capable of responding to a shooting incident and being willing to look at another human being and, in defense of six- to 12-year-old kids, shoot that person dead.”

Commissioner Tommy Long expressed optimism that legislative changes might one day make it more economical to protect schools, but until then, he supports the SRO proposal and Wilke’s approach.

“I appreciate his stand concerning our most vulnerable,” Long said. “We need to let people know that we’ve got their back and if you try to cause harm to our children, you’re going to pay.”

Terry Ramey, Haywood County’s newest commissioner, fell in line with other commissioners in support of the tax hike.

“Nobody likes a tax increase, and I sure don’t like a tax increase,” said Ramey, who has a history of property tax delinquencies, including more than $1,600 in write-offs, dating back 15 years. “But if I think there’s anything that we need it for, it would be for the kids. And I don’t think there’s too many people that would complain about a tax increase, knowing where it’s going.”

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