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Posted: November 6, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Debate rises over P'dale police staffing

Porterdale candidates and elected officials agree that the city's police department is short staffed, but disagree over whether to seek grants for an officer now or to wait for the economy to improve to hire.

Work on next year's budget will wait until after the election Tuesday, which will decide the mayor's office and three of the five city council seats. However, officials did agree that the police department is shorthanded.

"I would love for us to have more officers, just like I'd like love to have more public works employees on," Mayor Bobby Hamby said. "But with the economy like it is and the city's financial situation right now, I don't see that we can do that. Hopefully when the economy starts coming back and when we get some businesses and property values come up, we'll have the funds to fill in some of those positions."

Others, including Hamby's mayoral opponent Arline Chapman, said the need is great enough that the city should seek grants to hire officers as soon as possible, even if that risks requiring the city to keep the officer on after the grant money stops.

"We're really at a skeleton level," she said.

Specifically, Chapman said the federal COPS Grant, through the Department of Justice, and grants from Georgia's Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

According to the Community Orientated Policing Services office at the Department of Justice, the COPS Hiring Program would pay for three years of entry-level salary and "fringe benefits" for new

hires, rehiring laid off officers and keeping officers about to be laid off because of budget cuts. It cannot be used to replace local money in police budgets, according to the COPS office. It can only be used to expand or supplement local money.

After three years, the grant requires the department to keep the officer on for 12 more months.
Councilor Linda Finger, who is up for reelection, agreed the need for officers justified the risk of a future salary.

"I do realize all those things come with a hitch. There are matches and rules, but I'm certainly in favor of that," Finger said. "Maybe at the end of the year or two, whatever the criteria is, maybe we could afford to keep the person on."

The police force is in a reactive position, officials have said, meaning they respond to needs and emergencies as they arise, but cannot take time in the community for proactive patrolling and things like code enforcement.
Currently, there are some shifts without a Porterdale officer on duty. The Newton County Sheriff's Office responds to calls during those times.

"When our officers are patrolling, you get an officer on site within minutes," Finger said. "That doesn't happen when the county is doing it because the county is short-staffed too. I'm certainly not criticizing the county. But we've got to man our own departments."

Chief Geoff Jacobs, who started on the job in December, said the department has cut two positions since he started, one just days after he began and another in the early summer. "Honestly, that last cut really did it to us," Jacobs said.

The department, with five full-time officers, cannot cover the city 24 hours a day, he said. Most of the city covered shifts have only one full-time officer on duty, he said.

"You cannot run a town this size without having at least a compliment of officers we had before the cutbacks, and with the time limitations they can work," Chapman said, referring to a four-hour weekly furlough for all city employees.

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