Budget cuts raise security fears at museum
By Emily Ford
SPENCER — The N.C. Transportation Museum property once again could become a “cocaine highway” if the state doesn’t pay Spencer police officers to patrol the historic landmark at night, the Spencer police chief says.
And unarmed museum security guards could be in danger working alone on the museum grounds, Chief Michael James said in a letter to Spencer Town Manager Larry Smith.
“I am convinced that crime, including vandalism, drug activity and larceny, will increase with a lower police presence there,” James said.
Due to state budget cuts, the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites has eliminated funding for a $26,256 annual contract between the museum and Spencer police to provide nighttime security, effective May 31.
The museum borders East Spencer and has served as a cut-through.
“The criminals and undesirables to and from East Spencer will quickly learn that Spencer police no longer perform foot patrols and building checks, and they once again will begin to use the museum as a meeting place for drug transactions and as a place to commit acts of vandalism such as breaking out window panes,” James said.
A single past incident of vandalism cost $40,000, he said.
Spencer aldermen at 7 tonight will consider a resolution asking the state to resume funding for the security contract to protect “both life and property” at the museum.
The state had no choice but to eliminate money for the contract between the museum and police, one of the priciest agreements funded by the Division of State Historic Sites, Director Keith Hardison said. The division has discontinued virtually all contract services, from security to pest control, he said.
During an already tight budget year, the division was told by the State Budget Office a few months ago to cut another 2.5 percent, Hardison said.
“That doesn’t sound like much,” he said.
But because the directive came halfway through the fiscal year, in reality state divisions were cutting 5 percent of their remaining budgets, he said.
“This was particularly difficult for us, and as a result we’ve had to greatly reduce spending on a number of fronts, including the cancelation of almost all contract services,” Hardison said.
The state gave the police two months’ notice — more time than required, Hardison said. Taxpayer dollars will fund the contract through April, he said.
After that, the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation, a private nonprofit that supports the museum, will pay for one month of police protection with private dollars.
“There was simply not enough money to continue through the end of the fiscal year, which we had hoped to do,” Hardison said.
The state did not include money for police protection at the museum in next year’s budget, which begins July 1.
Two museum security guards who normally work during the day will take over after-hours patrols.
“I’m very concerned that they will have security guards working there around the clock, but not sworn law enforcement officers,” James told the Post. “I fear for the safety of their security personnel.”
He said Spencer police have made numerous arrests on museum property, including drug-related crimes. Most people arrested had concealed weapons, he said.
Hardison said the guards will be safe. Spencer police have provided supplemental protection at the museum, he said, but the facility’s basic security plan remains in place and effective.
“The more security you have, the better,” he said. “But you can only afford what you can afford.”
The guards and various alarm systems will protect the property, he said.
Types of crimes that occur on museum property include vandalism and malicious mischief, Hardison said.
“We’ve not experienced, to my knowledge, any violent crimes there,” he said.
The buildings and artifacts at the museum, formerly Southern Railway’s major steam locomotive repair facility called Spencer Shops, are valued in the millions of dollars, Hardison said.
“It’s a great landmark for Spencer and our state, and I think it deserves to be protected,” James said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
• “Many of the museum incidents have been tied to trespass to and from East Spencer, so much so that this passageway was once often referred to with the very unfortunate nickname of ‘cocaine highway.’ ”
• “Unarmed security personnel without the power of arrest confronting drug users or those trafficking in drugs causes me great concern.”
• “It is my sincere hope that someone within the N.C. General Assembly champions a bill that will allow for the continued…security contract funding that allows us to provide the additional patrols at the museum.”
• “A sworn officer with powers of arrest is imperative to protect this historical landmark that is of great significance to our community and our great state.”
— Spencer Police Chief Michael James, advocating for state funding for police protection at the N.C. Transportation Museum