A N.C. House budget proposal brokered late this week brought at least a temporary measure of relief to community college officials and local police and fire chiefs alike.
As budget writers in recent weeks have grappled with growing deficits, they had considered axing waivers traditionally given to police, fire, EMS and other service agencies who take continuing education and other training courses at community colleges.
These waivers are valuable: police and fire agencies large and small have long relied on them to keep their officers current and certified. And there's real value to them; this year, Wake Technical Community College provides $2.47 million worth of free - or "waived" - courses to police, fire, EMS workers as well as prison inmates and senior citizens. Durham Technical Community College provides nearly $500,000 this year, and Alamance Community Technical College chips in $677,000.
That's a lot of training.
"The argument has been that these are folks who put their lives on the line," said Bill Ingram, Durham Tech's president. "Many of them must have this training on an ongoing basis."
For weeks, community college officials have watched the budget deliberations with a keen eye. In Durham and Orange counties, Ingram's college offers these waivers to at least a dozen city and county fire, police and other agencies. Likewise in Wake and at other community college campuses.
At Wake Tech, one hugely popular program is the firearms simulator, which trains police in the use of weapons. It uses video and full-size simulated weapons complete with noise and recoil to replicate the gun-firing experience, said Stephen Scott, Wake Tech's president. It draws police from all over the state.
Police agencies rely on the waivers. If the waivers were cut or reduced, police departments, particularly smaller ones without the ability to do in-house teaching, would struggle to find the same level of training.
"You'd have to prioritize," said Lt. Troy Smith of the Chapel Hill Police Department. "There's going to be a significant gap created. I'm not sure we can fill it."
Chapel Hill PD last year sent 200 officers for about 5,000 hours of free training at community colleges. In Durham, most of the 512 sworn city police officers take some training through Durham Tech, said Kammie Michael, a police department spokeswoman.
Even if the waivers remain in place this year, they may wind up on the chopping block again, officials concede.
"Services that were free before may not be free anymore," said Ingram, the Durham Tech president. "We'd certainly like to continue the waivers, but if it's a matter of trading that with some other cut to our budget, I'd rather see the waivers modified or discontinued."