Macon County began the year with one less magistrate than it has had in past years. The 2011-2012 budget put in place a variety of cuts across the board in North Carolina and as a result, Highlands is without a magistrate for the first time in 30 years.
The Town of Highlands may get a reprieve in next year’s budget if Gov. Pat McCrory gets his way. In the budget that he has presented to the N.C. General Assembly, he has included language to restore positions to many of the rural areas in the state.
When asked about the 2013-2015 biennial budget, the Hon. John W. Smith, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, stated that the AOC will be asking for the restoration of 28 magistrate positions statewide, news Macon County officials were happy to hear.
“In Highlands, they don't always have a lot of officers on patrol and if they have to bring a suspect down the mountain, the people of Highlands have to do without protection for a while. It's a big concern of ours. Luckily the governor has put it in his budget to restore the position, but we won't know until the budget is passed whether that will stay in,” said Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “It appears it does have support on both sides, in the House and in the Senate, but we won't know for sure until the final budget comes out. With the magistrate position being brought back, it would mean not only better service, but these magistrates who are basically on salary are working long hours now so it would relieve the system. ”
With a population that significantly changes during the different seasons, the town of Highlands often saw the local magistrate go from working only a few hours during the week to working every day. With the absence of the magistrate, upon making an arrest, police officers are now required to transport individuals down the mountain road to see a magistrate located in Franklin.
Making the trek amounts to about an hour of time round trip, plus the time it takes to process the individual seeing the magistrate.
“Normally [a person] would have been booked and processed at our police department and then most likely bonded out,” stated Highlands Police Chief Bill Harrell in February, shortly after the cut took effect. “It is definitely putting a strain on man power. There's not many inspirational things I can say about it. It's a safety concern.”
According to a resolution penned to state officials by the Macon County commissioners back in 2011, travel time would increase significantly and possibly become prohibited completely if weather conditions were to become dangerous in the event of snow, ice, rain and/or fog, which are likely to occur at various times of the year considering that the town sits at an elevation of 3,382 feet.