By Anna Griffin
The Charlotte Observer
The N.C. agency that protects highway work zones and ensures
long-haul trucks are safe to drive has been forced to juggle
patrols, cut back on inspections and generally stretch itself
thin because of a severe manpower shortage.
State leaders merged the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles'
enforcement section with the N.C. Highway Patrol a year ago
in an attempt to save money and end a legacy of cronyism inside
But one unexpected result has been a rash of vacancies. As
of last week, a fifth of the state's 352 positions were empty.
The problem: Enforcement officers now have to go through
the same training as Highway Patrol troopers. Yet they're
paid substantially less.
"Recruiting has proven very difficult," said First
Sgt. Everett Clendenin, a Highway Patrol spokesman. "We're
not sacrificing safety. But just the routine daily patrols
... when you have this many vacancies, it's going to have
Before last year, the N.C. Department of Transportation was
responsible for all facets of motor vehicle enforcement. DMV
examiners registered new drivers and handed out licenses;
DMV officers manned highway weigh stations, patrolled rest
areas and regulated the state's trucking industry.
Historically, all those jobs have been tough to fill. The
work is not glamorous, and the clientele is notoriously cranky.
(The General Assembly recently created 45 new driver license
examiner positions to help shorten lines at DMV offices. The
N.C. DOT is in the process of filling them, spokesman Bill
A year ago, after high-profile allegations of ticket fixing
and bribery within the DMV's enforcement arm, state lawmakers
voted to move 375 officers from the Transportation Department
into the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.
Gov. Mike Easley backed the move, calling the DMV "a
mess" and demanding more professionalism from officers.
"We had some bad apples and we had some lax management
policies in enforcement," said state Rep. Wilma Sherrill,
R-Buncombe, a former DMV commissioner who proposed the merger
in the General Assembly. "I believed, and I think a lot
of other people agreed, that the Highway Patrol was doing
a better job managing that sort of thing."
Under the old system, a would-be DMV officer received between
11 and 18 weeks of training once they were hired. Now, new
officers must go through the same 28-week boot camp as Highway
Patrol troopers, a combination of classroom lessons, driving
instruction and physical fitness training. As part of the
merger, some Highway Patrol troopers are being trained to
work on commercial vehicles.
Yet an entry-level DMV officer makes, on average, $24,980
-- $7,000 less than the Highway Patrol counterpart. That disparity
makes recruiting tough.
"We have people coming back to us because they don't
want to go to trooper school to make less than the troopers
do," said Tracy Keel, who supervises the N.C. DOT's license
and theft training bureau.
State recruiters struggled to find qualified DMV applicants
even before the merger. Of the 375 positions transferred last
year, 57 were vacant. As of last week, 69 of the state's 352
enforcement officer positions were vacant.
The Highway Patrol itself had just 57 vacancies last week
among its 1,400 positions.
"People come in and they want to go into the Highway
Patrol. The recruiters tell them that there are two positions
they can apply for," Clendenin said. "But you have
to be upfront and let them know about the differences."
John Midgette, executive director of the N.C. Police Benevolent
Association, said he's talked with Crime Control Secretary
Bryan Beatty about discrepancies in pay between Highway Patrol
troopers and motor vehicle enforcement officers, and he's
hopeful legislators will act to make the enforcement jobs
Sherrill agreed that lawmakers need to look at the situation,
but said a simple pay increase likely isn't the answer.
"In an economy like this, with unemployment like this,
you should be able to fill these jobs," she said. "There's
got to be more to it than money."