Recent staffing woes at the Asheville Police Department have spurred: a citizen ballot initiative; the city’s hiring of a recruitment firm; and front-page coverage in the New York Times. Meanwhile, a quieter personnel crisis has also been unfolding at the Buncombe County Detention Facility, according to a presentation prepared by Sheriff Quentin Miller for the Tuesday, April 19 meeting of the county Board of Commissioners.
Since last January, 83 detention officers have resigned from the Buncombe jail. Over the same period, only 64 new officers have been hired. While an accompanying staff report says the jail continues to meet minimum staffing requirements, it calls current levels “critical.” The Sheriff’s Office’s goal is to have fewer than five jail staffing vacancies at any given time.
In an effort to bolster recruitment, Miller is asking the commissioners to approve a salary increase of up to 37% for jail staff. The current starting salary for a detention officer is $19.14 per hour; the most generous increase proposed in the sheriff’s presentation is $7 per hour, bringing that hourly wage to $26.14. Applied to all detention employees, such a raise would cost the county approximately $1.55 million per year.
“We believe making our wages more competitive within the detention facility will increase our pool of applicants and address our perpetual staff shortage,” the presentation reads. It cites a recent survey of jail staff that found 56% of employees did “not feel their needs are being met financially.”
Figures provided by the Sheriff’s Office suggest Buncombe pays jail employees less than do many other North Carolina counties. Haywood County, for example, pays a starting salary of $19.80 per hour, while hourly starting rates in Alamance and Mecklenburg counties are $24.47 and $25.26, respectively. (Starting hourly pay for a state-certified police officer at the APD is $21.51.)
The pay discussion comes as Buncombe’s jail faces criticism over issues of inmate safety. A January report by the Citizen Times found that the detention facility had the worst death rate of any jail in North Carolina from 2008-2021, with six dying in the previous 16 months alone.
In other news
Better news for the county comes in the form of a nearly $16.2 million windfall, to be disbursed over the next 18 years, resulting from a national settlement of lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers for their role in the opioid epidemic. The amount exceeds a $14 million estimate provided by County Manager Avril Pinder during a May 4 briefing to commissioners.
As outlined in a presentation available before the meeting, the money must be used for “evidence-based, high-impact strategies” to address opioid-related issues. Programs that could be funded include syringe services, post-overdose response teams and criminal justice diversion.
Buncombe would receive about $621,000 this spring, followed by a $1.36 million allocation this summer and smaller annual payments through 2038. County staffers expect to submit final recommendations for use of the funds by September.
Consent agenda and public comment
The board’s consent agenda for the meeting contains seven items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. In addition to the routine approval of previous meeting minutes, the agenda includes acceptance of roughly $19,000 in reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Tropical Storm Fred responses by local fire districts, as well as a budget amendment to allocate roughly $125,000 in previously designated conservation easement funds for four projects that will protect 155 acres.
The commissioners will also hold a briefing at 3 p.m. to discuss items on future agendas. The full agenda and supporting documents for the regular meeting can be found at this link.
In-person public comment will be taken at the start of the regular meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. in Room 326 at 200 College St. in Asheville; no voicemail or email comments will be permitted. Both the briefing and regular meeting will be livestreamed on the county’s Facebook page and will subsequently be available via YouTube.
Edited at 6:40 p.m. April 19 to accurately reflect the breadth of proposed detention officer raises.