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Vacancies strain North Carolina DMV

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 the DMV.

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 an effect."

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 Jones said.)

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 more enticing.

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."