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Sheriffs grapple with best way to serve growing populations in remote areas

It’s a long wait for residents of Nantahala in Macon County when they dial the Sheriff’s Office.

Deputy response time to the small community of Nantahala from the sheriff’s office in Franklin can take up to 30 minutes, which is why Sheriff Robbie Holland wants to expand his force and station someone in Nantahala fulltime, but that too has been a long time coming.

“I’ve been sheriff for 10 years, and I’ve always said I feel that every citizen in Macon County deserves the same services,” Holland said. “But because of distance between Nantahala and Franklin and Highlands, I feel there is a need to be able to provide additional officers to be able to put someone in Nantahala.”

For each of his first five years in office, Holland requested funding for enough extra deputies to station one fulltime in the Nantahala area of Macon County. Holland’s office was denied each of those years because of the added burden on the budget those deputies would cause.

The extra cost of adding four deputies, one for each of the four shifts, would be more than $250,000. The cost of each deputy would be about $60,000 per year, including salary, training, benefits, employment taxes and equipment. One-time equipment and training expenditures would significantly raise that first year’s price tag.

After denying Holland’s request the first five times, county commissioners finally agreed to a compromise in 2007: to add one deputy each year until there were four additional deputies.

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After the first year, however, the economic downturn hit. The county tightened its belt and denied the promised increase for the past three years.

Instead, Holland said the commissioners instructed him to apply for federal grants. This year, Holland landed a federal grant to subsidize the cost of one additional deputy and his equipment. The help from the federal government would cover 85 percent of the $120,000 startup cost of hiring and equipping a new deputy, and a portion of the salary and personnel costs for two more years.

Last week, the commissioners approved $70,000 in matching funds over three years that were needed to land the assistance.

Although Holland said the extra deputy will help, he’s still short-staffed for what he believes is adequate coverage for Macon County.

Fortunately for residents in Nantahala, response times for medical and fire emergencies is only a few minutes, thanks to the volunteer fire department and an ambulance based in the area, but the long response for law enforcement has caused problems for both deputies and residents.

Holland said he has had officers who have had to struggle with an aggressive person they’ve pulled over on a traffic stop for 20 or more minutes while waiting for backup to arrive. One officer had to manage a suspect with a gun while he awaited assistance, he said.

“Sitting there for 20 minutes talking to an individual with a gun in their hand is pretty dangerous,” Holland said.


A universal problem

The situation in Nantahala is not unique to Macon County. Nearby Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said his office struggles with a similar situation in one of his remote areas — Deals Gap.

Response time can take 45 minutes for his officers — in fact officers from Graham County or Tennessee can get there quicker than Swain can, prompting the neighboring counties to have a mutual arrangement to respond to emergencies in each other’s territories if they can get there quicker than the home county.

The challenge is nearly universal for law enforcement in rural, mountainous counties. In Jackson County, deputy response times and patrol coverage of the outlying Cashiers area emerged as one of the top issues in the most recent sheriff’s race there.

Haywood County has several remote, outlying areas that would take a deputy up to 30 minutes to reach — barring one happening to be on patrol in a nearby area at the time a call came in.

As population in remote mountain areas increases, more calls are likely to come in from those areas, heightening the need for quicker response times.

Holland said although he makes it mandatory that at least one trip be made to Nantahala per shift, based on the call volume received from Nantahala, he can’t justify stationing one of his five officers per shift to stay there around the clock if it meant leaving more populated areas of the county uncovered.

According to 911 call center data, of 13,000 Macon County emergency calls in 2011, only about 250 came from Nantahala. Holland said the office can go up to a week without receiving a call from the area, particularly in the winter when the many vacation homes there are empty, but when they do come in those calls can be just as urgent as those received from the Franklin or Highlands area, ranging from robbery to domestic abuse. The deputies simply have to classify the most urgent emergency calls and respond to those first.

The shortage of law enforcement could also be exacerbated by the retirement of several state troopers in the area. Aside from the 23 or so deputies in the county, another seven state troopers are dedicated to traffic enforcement in Macon County. Yet, one already retired in August and two others are expected to retire by August 2013.

It may be more than a year after their departures before those positions are replaced, said Sergeant Todd Norville of the State Highway Patrol, who is based in Bryson City and oversees the state troopers in several counties in the region, including Macon and Swain.

Furthermore, he said the state troopers in Jackson County, who are also down two officers, will have first priority over cadets graduating from the state trooper school because of the county’s coverage of Western Carolina University.

Although, state troopers focus their efforts on traffic enforcement and car wrecks, if there aren’t enough troopers to respond to traffic-related incidents, sheriff’s deputies would have to fill in the gaps. And if there is a something more pressing to address, Holland said a trip to Nantahala per shift by a deputy gets put on the backburner.

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