Proposal calls for no new cops in 2006

YOUNG HARRIS - For the first time since 2002, county officials are facing the possibility of not boosting the police force.

In a meeting during the county commission retreat in Young Harris on Monday, officials released the first budget proposed by new Chairman Charles Bannister, which included 176 more workers to the county's payroll.

That total includes 81 sheriff's deputies, 36 fire and ambulance personnel and a corrections officer but no additions of sworn police officers.

The proposal does include 16 communications, or 911, staffers to the police department.

County Administrator Jock Connell said there could be a possibility that officers will be added to the mix before county commissioners vote on the budget Jan. 3 because he has set aside several new positions yet to be assigned.

Connell said those workers could enhance the county's Operation Fixing Broken Windows campaign, and could go to police or code enforcement officers.

Chairman Charles Bannister said he didn't feel the need to add police officers next year because the county is still hiring to fill vacancies from a time when police pay was too low to attract applicants.

So far in 2005, the county has hired 80 officers, but a year ago, there were more than 60 vacancies in the department on top of the 60 new positions added. District 2 Commissioner Bert Nasuti said he was concerned about the declining ratio of county employees per 1,000 citizens.

"We're a massive operation, but our employee per citizen relationship has dropped," he said. "It shows we're doing more with less, but in the public safety area I don't want to see that."

According to county Finance Director Lisa Johnsa, the county did not add sworn officers during the 2002 cycle because of an expected boost to salaries that made hiring tight.

In the three subsequent years, the county added 136 police positions to the budget.

According to Johnsa, the biggest hit in new programs in the county's $1.5 billion budget comes from the opening of an expansion to the jail.

Next summer, the sheriff is expected to open 1,080 new beds in a 1,440-bed tower currently under construction. If the proposal is adopted, the department will add a total of 140 positions in 2005 and 2006 to man the facility and a new Recorder's Court building expected to open in the next several months.

Also affecting the budget is the addition of a Superior Court judge, openings of the Dacula and Grayson library branches and a Dacula-area fire station.

Commissioners will consider tweaking the budget over the next two months. The county will hold a public hearing on the matter Dec. 1 before voting on the final budget Jan. 3.

Connell said Monday he would ask county department heads to develop a plan to cut the budget by 2 percent by the time the county considers a mid-year adjustment in July.