Museum budget goes off the rails

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 12, 2011

By Emily Ford
SPENCER — Spencer police officers patrolled the N.C. Transportation Museum 53 times last week during the night.
From April 4 to 10, officers drove through the property 43 times and walked the premises of the historic landmark 10 times.
That frequency will end May 31 when the state eliminates funding for a security contract between the museum and Spencer police, Chief Michael James said.
While police will continue to patrol the museum property at times, the department can’t afford to give that kind of attention to the buildings and sprawling grounds without compensation, James said.
“Should it be our responsibility as an agency to patrol a state-maintained facility without compensation?” he said. “The state should bear the burden of security.”
The museum’s various alarm systems and two security guards will provide adequate protection, a state official said.
But without a nightly police presence, James said drug-related crimes and vandalism will increase at the museum, a pass-through from East Spencer.
Spencer aldermen on Tuesday voted to send a resolution to state officials and lawmakers, asking that the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources Division of State Historic Sites resume funding the $26,256 annual security contract.
The division has eliminated virtually all contracts due to state budget cuts.
Town and museum staff agree that eliminating police protection will put state property and the safety of the museum’s unarmed security guards in jeopardy, the resolution said.
Spencer uses the $26,256 to offset the cost required to provide “extraordinary coverage” of the museum, Town Manager Larry Smith said. The town decreased its fee several years ago, Smith said.
The number of hours police officers typically spend on museum-related incidents and patrols was not immediately available.
Spencer has two officers on duty at night. One patrols the museum property at random times throughout the shift.
“We count on those funds,” James said.
Money for the contract is not included in next year’s proposed state budget.
Smith said he hopes the loss of the security contract will not mean a reduction in force for the police department, but he doesn’t know for sure.
“I would like to say that will not be the case,” Smith said.
James said security guards aren’t as effective as police officers because they can’t arrest or physically detain a suspect, unless they fear for their own safety.
Jeff Kiker, who lives in Spencer and serves as president of P&G Security, said security officers can serve as a deterrent.
The presence of even an unarmed security officer can keep criminals away, Kiker said. Patrolling and shining lights in buildings are effective, he said.
“That’s going to do as much as a police officer,” Kiker said.
Hiring a security officer costs between $11 and $17 per hour, he said, depending on level of training and whether they are armed.
“We can do pretty much exactly the same thing as a law enforcement officer,” he said.
Security personnel who observe criminal activity can’t tackle or hold suspects, but they can notify authorities immediately and give detailed descriptions, Kiker said.
“We can work as an arm of law enforcement,” he said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.