Police may foot bills for renewing certification

STAFF WRITERJune 11, 2009 

Law enforcement officers may soon have to pay to keep their jobs.

A provision in the proposed state budget would start charging officers and deputies $100 to be re-certified by the state. Rookie officers and deputies would pay an initial $250 fee. Those receiving additional certifications, such as operating a radar system to catch speeders, would pay an extra $25 per certification.

State lawmakers say the fees would help fund the state Justice Academy, where officers get training, and cover administrative costs. Law enforcement agencies say the provision would be a significant unbudgeted cost for their cash-strapped departments, especially in Durham, Raleigh and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, with hundreds of officers each.

Police certification, required annually by the state, makes sure officers know the latest laws and procedures. But the state now picks up the cost. The change would affect all levels of law enforcement, from armed security guards to probation officers, the State Bureau of Investigation and the state Highway Patrol.

Durham Police Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr. said the fee should have been imposed years ago, not now when departments are pinching pennies. He sees agencies, not officers, footing the bill.

"I've got 500 cops I have to certify, and I send them to all this training to keep them on top and maintain our CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies) certification," he said. "For many departments, including this department, I may have to downsize the amount of training these officers are afforded. It's a loss-loss for law enforcement."

Rep. Alice Bordsen, an Alamance County Democrat, is co-chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Justice and Public Safety, which proposed the fee. If the budget provision is approved, the state would save $4.5 million in 2009-10 and $8.1 million the following year, she said.

"That's a lot of money we cannot ignore when talking about being mindful to taxpayer dollars," she said.

The provision is one of many instances in the proposed state budget where costs are being passed down to taxpayers or local governments to meet projected revenue shortfalls. The current budget proposal in the House slashes state spending dramatically and includes significant cuts in state services.

Bordsen says her committee is working to find alternatives but thinks the fees will be approved. Attorney General Roy Cooper has suggested increasing criminal court fees $8 to pay for police certification. That sounds good, Bordsen said, but ex-offenders already have a hard time finding work, and not paying fees would be a probation violation. That would send offenders back to prison, where taxpayers pay $28,000 a year per inmate, she said.

"We are desperately trying to find another path," she said. "Even though the counties are in better shape than the state, we don't like to push these financial burdens further down the chain."

Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy, in a June 8 e-mail to state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, an Orange County Democrat, voiced his concern over the provision.

"This is not savings -- this instead would be a bad precedent of merely shifting costs from one level of government to another, and pretending that it's savings," he wrote.

Kinnaird also believes the provision will pass.

"They're just trying to find savings anywhere they can," she said. "I certainly will be watching for it with the caveat that we have this huge budget deficit to fill."

The provision could create financial problems for officers who are not receiving a raise or are experiencing pay cuts, said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs' Association. Towns in the same county may be pressured to pay the fee if one does and the other passes the cost to officers, said Caldwell, who added that the association does not support the measure.

Law enforcement officers, especially rookies, barely make enough to survive, said Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.

"I don't know any law enforcement agency that's going to be in favor of this," he said. "We have enough burdens on our backs as it is."

Stan.chambers@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2025

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