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Opponents of a law enforcement training center packed the assembly room on Monday. Opponents of a law enforcement training center packed the assembly room on Monday.

More than a dozen people stood before the Henderson County Board of Commissioners on Monday night to express their strong opposition to a new $20 million training center, citing the cost, the proximity to the new Innovative High School at Blue Ridge Community College and what they described as the militarization of the sheriff’s office.

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“Twenty million dollars is really a preposterous expense for this county,” said Mary Fletcher. She cited McDonald’s ideas on a trained back up force he has called a posse. “I am concerned that the proposed law enforcement facility will become a tool of sheriff McDonald for the training of his citizens posse…. A posse of individuals who have not received the required 602 hours of certified training and mandatory 12-month probation is just a ridiculous idea.”

Many of the opponents prefaced their remarks by citing Sheriff Charlie McDonald’s comments in a departmental newsletter strongly condemning the behavior of protesters, especially during demonstrations that had turned violent. McDonald likened the protesters to "a child playing a board game. Gleeful at the prospect of winning but impetuously overturning the table and throwing a tantrum when faced with the prospect of losing." He's since walked back the comments, saying he was referring to protests out of state that caused destruction. The Henderson County residents pointed to their own peaceful demonstrations and criticized the sheriff for criticizing what they defended as a constitutional right to peaceably assemble and speak against government actions.

Generally, opponents argued against the facility on the grounds that it costs too much, it's in the wrong place, being next to a high school; it shifts money from education and other higher priorities and it's an exhorbitant local expense aimed at fighting terrorism, which is a national defense issue.

A mental health worker, Debra Rhinehart, said she had to deal frequently with unstable people and had received training in how to de-escalate volatile situations. She recommended that the county spend money instead on the kind of training that prevents violence before it happens.
“I can only say I have been in this hot and heavy field for five or six years and I have not been hurt using these techniques,” she said. “I would like to see more training in this area because I know that it works and it helps keep people safe. There are a lot of ways to stay safer.”
The residents’ comments failed to derail the project. Commissioners did delay a green light for the final design, which will cover an acre of land at BRCC's old baseball field, but only for 30 days.
Chad Roberson, the ClarkNexsen architect on contract to design county buildings, said the training center would be ventilated so it did not endanger occupants and would have precast concrete walls so thick that a high-powered weapon fired inside could not be heard outside.
The L-shaped 49,000-square-foot building includes 100-yard and 50-yard shooting ranges, two 50-seat classrooms, a locker room and gym space for the state-required POPAT (police officers physical abilities test). The facility also includes a 1,000-square-foot backup 911 center the county would use if the dispatch center at the sheriff’s office is knocked out.
County Manager Steve Wyatt said a backup 911 location “separated by some distance” from the sheriff's office had been a priority for a long time.


McDonald responded to the suggestion that he is trying to build a paramilitary facility and responded to critics who denounced his comments on protests.
“I of all people am against a police state,” he said. “I certainly do believe in the First Amendment and I certainly support their right to speak peacefully and according to the rule of law.”
The sheriff recounted the history of his efforts over the past two years to site a tactical training facility, at first outdoors. The commissioners rejected two potential sites.
“I guess it was about two years ago when we were trying to close on property it was made very clear to the board that the citizens of Henderson County we’re not going to tolerate any facility outdoors,” he said. “If we weren’t sure, when we tried to find another facility, a flurry of letters and emails came to the board and they certainly came to me” and commissioners dropped the pursuit of an outdoor option.
Commissioner Grady Hawkins said while the critics’ comments implied “that we’re running a rodeo over there, that’s pretty far from what is planned.” A lot of the training involved scenarios other than combatting terrorism, he added.
Training involves first responders, not just first responders, handling emergencies like bad car crashes, Roberson said.
Roberson said his firm has shortlisted potential construction managers for the project and plans to interview the finalists on March 27. The facility is scheduled to be open in September 2018.

The momentum for the project stalled momentarily when Commissioner Bill Lapsley questioned the cost and the lack of support from outside the county.

“If I drive by a building at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday and it’s empty I start to wonder whether we’ve spent our tax money wisely," he said. McDonald sought support from area agencies, the commissioner pointed out.
“To date, he’s received about seven or eight letters of support, which quite honestly I’m disappointed in,” Lapsley said. “I thought their support would be substantially higher. But it is what it is. This facility will be one of a kind in Western North Carolina and I’m certainly proud of Henderson County and I’m not ashamed to take the lead to show others what can be done to help law enforcement. But it also begs the question, Does that mean that other counties have not found that it’s economically justified to do this kind of facility.”
(McDonald, correcting Lapsley’s number later, said 20 agencies had expressed support for the facility, though none had committed money.)
As for support from the state, Lapsley said he was “taken aback” that the county had received “very little energetic support from either Sen. Edwards or Rep. McGrady” on helping to secure state funding to offset the cost.
“At the moment my two main concerns are the lack of additional funding from state government and somewhat lukewarm support from other agencies,” he said. “The entire burden seems to be placed on Henderson County taxpayers. I don’t think it’s prudent to proceed with final design plans” until the county looks at “scaling back the scope of the project or finding some additional support from other entities to help fund the project.”
Hawkins compared the cost to homeowners paying for fire insurance they hope they never need to use.
“I think we’re looking at how much we’re willing to pay for future security in the community,” he said. “We had comments about a number of ways to spend money other than what we’re doing and we could look at a lot of ways. I think this board has well funded our education system and continues to fund it. I would hope in these 100 days or so, the architect will look at some ways to save some money but I think in the larger perspective we need to educate the public here… because from the comments that we heard here tonight there’s a lot of misinformation and there’s a lot of information that’s just not correct. Sheriff McDonald is not going to be throwing nuclear grenades out there at Blue Ridge Community College and some of the other things.”
Commissioner Michael Edney generally supported the training center, too.
“Having practiced law for 30 years, I know that untrained or undertrained law enforcement officers cause more harm than good,” he said. “I do agree that there may or may not be cost saving measures.”
After those comments and a 10-minute break to change the videotape that records the meeting, Lapsley withdrew his motion to delay the project for 100 days. He made a new motion that called for a 30-day postponement while the staff and architects look for “value engineering” to trim costs. The board adopted the motion unanimously.