(The Center Square) – North Carolina law enforcement and public safety officials on Thursday provided an update to lawmakers on a new Department of Adult Corrections, issues at the Department of Public Safety and the deployment of a new interoperable communication system.
Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe told lawmakers on the Joint Justice and Public Safety Legislative Oversight Committee about the department’s progress and staffing challenges as it part ways with a new Department of Adult Correction.
The move, approved by lawmakers in the latest budget, becomes official on January 1, although about half of DPS’s 40,000 employees transferred to the new DAC in October.
The transition comes as the two agencies struggle to fill a variety of positions, from highway patrol, Capitol police and juvenile justice officers, to corrections, parole and administrative services.
The DPS currently has a vacancy rate of 8% with Alcohol Law Enforcement, 12% with Highway Patrol, 31% with Capitol Police, and 53% with Juvenile Justice. Buffaloe attributed difficulties hiring officers with the Capitol Police to the agency’s status as “the only law enforcement agency within the DPS that is not on a pay scale.”
Vacancies in juvenile justice stem from an “inability to meet market salaries” which are about $20,000 more than the state pays, he said.
“We are struggling very hard,” Buffaloe said.
Tim Moose, chief assistant secretary of adult correction and juvenile justice, told lawmakers that the state’s juvenile facilities are currently at 110% capacity and that staffing issues, combined with regulations federal laws which stipulate one agent for every eight minors, are a major problem.
“I have trouble sleeping at night because of security,” he said, adding that the situation puts the department “at risk of not complying with federal standards.”
Moose said he was working to solve the problems by sending clerical staff to facilities, although more drastic measures such as double bunking of juvenile offenders may be needed.
“We try to avoid that at all costs,” he said.
At one facility, Moose said, there is a single cook to prepare 128 meals three times a day.
Todd Ishee, the new secretary of the Department of Adult Corrections, said the transition to a new Cabinet agency is “moving as quickly as possible” and is on track to be self-sustaining by the new year, despite similar personnel issues.
The department’s vacancy rate has risen from less than 6% in 2019 to around 16% among probation and parole staff. Flexible hours, a new tiered compensation plan and other retention efforts are “successful” in reversing that trend, Ishee said.
Despite these challenges and the complications of the pandemic, the department’s correctional businesses have continued throughout the pandemic, raising $95 million through sewing, laundry, printing, license plates and other services — the third-highest total among similar programs nationwide, Ishee said.
State Highway Patrol Commander Freddy Johnson also updated lawmakers on the progress of the transition to the General Assembly-approved VIPER interoperable communications system. VIPER allows emergency responders to communicate over a single network.
There are 163,200 users for the 238 sites currently on the air, Johnson said, which includes 26 counties and six state agencies, with one county added about every month. Officials completed a $108,000 microwave upgrade study and implemented $422,856 of $678,000 in necessary equipment licenses and upgrades.
The department is expecting $5.4 million in routers and has bids for an $805,670 tower upgrade, as well as $1.3 million in tower lines and antennas, Johnson said.
Of the total $19.8 million allocated, DPS spent about $786,000 and has $7.5 million in work for the bids, Johnson said.
“It’s going to be a vastly improved technology for us,” he said.
DPS expects the cost to build the system infrastructure over four years to be $189 million.