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Posted: June 17, 2014 10:00 p.m.

BOC still mulling budget options

A week after the Newton County Board of Commissioners seemed to be on the verge of reaching a budget consensus, concerns about public safety, particularly high turnover rates in both the sheriff’s office and fire department, prompted the board to take another look at beefing up funding.

Last week the majority of commissioners had seemed to favor a millage rate of around 11, which would be a drop from the current 11.54 rate; however, while no commissioner said he or she was directly in favor of approving a millage rate higher than last week, multiple commissioners wanted to see if it was possible to buy additional equipment for the Newton County Sheriff’s Office and potentially hire a few more deputies.

Commissioner Levie Maddox also raised concern about the county’s high turnover rates in public safety, which he calculated as being around 13 percent for the sheriff’s office and around 30 percent for the fire department. While he didn’t share specific thoughts on how to reduce turnover, he did encourage the board to have an honest conversation and show courage.

Sheriff Ezell Brown, however, echoed the comments made last week by one of his employees, Susan Gray, who said deputies and correctional officers are underpaid and overworked.

While discussions about adding deputies was brief and may not happen in the current budget cycle, commissioners did appear to agree they wanted to see a couple of additions to this year’s budget, including adding metal detectors at both the Historic Courthouse and Administration Building and giving the sheriff some equipment he requested.

Keeping guns out

All commissioners agreed they wanted to see metal detectors and X-ray machines installed at both the Administration Building and Historic Courthouse to keep guns out of those buildings.

Sheriff Brown gave an impassioned speech against allowing guns into the buildings, which would happen under H.B. 60 if the county doesn’t install security devices.

While initial cost projections were higher, Chairman Keith Ellis and County Manager John Middleton believe both buildings be secured with metal detectors, X-ray machines and deputies to man them for around $200,000.

Commissioner John Douglas had originally been in favor of only putting in security at the Administration Building, which contains the tax assessor and tax commissioner’s offices as well as the election department. However, even he agreed both buildings needed to be secured after he said he found out recently that the man who killed the Griffin police officer in late May had no criminal record and had a concealed weapons permit.

“It makes it hollow for me to say people with permits never break the law,” said Douglas, referencing his own statements last week that he wasn’t worried about legal gun owners.

In order to keep costs down, county officials will look at potentially leasing or doing a lease-purchase to obtain the metal detectors, which costs $5,495 a piece and the X-ray machines, which cost $21,120 a piece, according to a previous report from the Newton County Sheriff’s Office. The Historic Courthouse has one public entrance, while the Administration Building has two public entrances.

Each deputy would cost around $50,000 to employ, but it’s unclear how many more deputies will be needed as each building currently has one deputy for security purposes at all times.

Extra equipment for the sheriff

Commissioners also appeared to be in favor of purchasing more equipment for the sheriff. Douglas, who echoed he wants to see the millage rate reduced all the way to 10.66, said he was in favor finding a way to honor $194,000 in equipment requests from the sheriff’s office, including:

- $15,000 for a power generator
- $6,000 for a SWAT hostage negotiator phone
- $10,000 for four SWAT AR-15 rifles (to replace outdated weapons)
- $81,600 for four license plate readers
- $6,000 for a patrol tracking dog
- $16,000 for two narcotics dogs (one dog would be a replacement and the other a new one)
- $60,000 for 12 new portable radios

However, that request doesn’t include an additional $489,040 the sheriff requested for equipment and repairs on the jail side, nor does it include any of the 23 deputies and 10 detention (jail) officers he requested at a cost of $1.4 million.
Maddox said that in March commissioners got information showing the Sheriff’s Office had lost 41 employees in the last six months to a year, which represented about $5 million in lost training costs.

Sheriff Brown said his office logged more than 24,000 training hours, and he said many of those employees left soon after completing training at the county’s expense.

“We’re talking about being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money; that’s not being good stewards when you’re spending that kind of money and losing that number of people in a year,” Brown said to commissioners.

Maddox said that according to the Georgia Sheriff’s Association’s formula, Newton County was around 140 employees below recommended levels.

Brown said response times have suffered, especially for minor crimes that are reported after they’ve occurred; when citizens ask Brown why it takes his deputies 30-45 minutes to respond in some cases, he tells them to talk to their commissioners.

Maddox also asked County Manager John Middleton and Assistant County Manager Tom Garrett to work with the sheriff on presenting plans on what purchases for the Sheriff’s Office could be made in future months and years.

Next steps

Middleton asked commissioners to give him and the finance staff until next Thursday, June 26, to come back with some budgets that would include all of the commissioner’s new requests. He asked the board for permission to prepare a budget that wasn’t constrained by any target millage rate for them to review.

Chairman Keith Ellis expressed disappointment at the fact the board did not reach a consensus Monday, and he cautioned commissioners from trying to tackle too much in this budget year. He has openly advocated for a 10.99 budget.

Ellis said the board would have a called meeting when the budget documents are ready to review.

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