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County sets date for police policy committee

October 09, 2015

A committee comprised of the chairman of the Chatham County Commission, the mayor of Savannah and the managers of each government is slated to meet next week to discuss the salaries of Savannah-Chatham police officers, Chairman Al Scott announced Friday.

The goal, the chairman said, is to get a handle on what has become the most significant obstacle to continuing a merged city-county police force — salary increases for its officers and who’s going to pay for them.

The policy committee will meet at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the county commission’s Green Room in the Old Courthouse, 124 Bull St.

“We want to know who all are getting raises,” Scott said. “We also want to know ... the current spend rate because we have salary dollars. We want to know the overtime spend down rate, the balance in the salary dollar column and when, at such time, would you (fully expend) the funds the county has already paid in.”

The city of Savannah initiated pay increases earlier this year in response to recommendations in a classification and compensation study. The city then referenced these raises in a proposed police merger agreement — language that was removed by the county when it voted on the document last month.

Scott has said the decision on how the cost for the salaries should be divided should be informed by the policy committee, a group that actually would be created as part of the merger agreement. He has said his preference was to get the agreement signed by both parties and then meet in the committee to discuss the salaries.

But the county’s lack of action on the pay raises in the meantime has given some in the community the impression the county wouldn’t assist in funding them.

Scott made an appearance at a meeting of the Savannah City Council last week, where he assured council members he isn’t opposed to increasing salaries for police officials. In fact, he said in a letter to the mayor last week, he felt the salaries could be increased more.

But the county has provided money for police salaries that likely hasn’t even been spent, Scott said Friday.

“I’m of the opinion that we are currently paying the salary increases because it’s being funded from salary dollars, and (the police department)’s not 100 percent staffed,” Scott said. “I don’t know the spend down rate on the overtime ... and when we will run out of money to fund raises and how many people are actually receiving the raises.

“Those are the issues we are trying to address at the policy committee.”

With the policy committee meeting now scheduled, Scott said he expects the city council to reconsider the latest version of the Savannah-Chatham police merger agreement at its next meeting.

Negotiations about the police department have now lasted more than a year, and some county commissioners this week had concerns about the future of police service in unincorporated areas. The county commission’s Sept. 26, 2014, vote to dissolve the current agreement established an 18-month deadline, at the end of which the two parties would need to have a new agreement, or the county would need to re-establish its own department. That deadline is five months away.

In March, the county commission voted to hire a search firm to find a county police chief in case negotiations with the city failed. Then, in May, City Manager Stephanie Cutter and County Manager Lee Smith announced a breakthrough with a framework for a new agreement.

Little has been said about re-establishing a county police department in the five intervening months, Commissioner Patrick Farrell said.

“From where I’m sitting, I don’t see where much has been done that I can get my hands around,” Farrell said. “There’s no guarantee there’s going to be a merger agreement, so, where are we?”

Smith said county staff earlier this year had already developed an organizational chart for a county police department, and the positions of the chief and of the rest of a county police force have remained in Chatham’s budget.

Meanwhile, the county manager said, he has had private discussions with “individuals who could come on as interim chief.”

If the two governments don’t meet the March deadline, Smith said, the county could request that the Sheriff’s Department patrol the unincorporated areas or ask for an extension from Savannah.

Whoever would take over enforcing the laws in the unincorporated areas would have their work cut out for them if current crime trends continue.

While the two governments have pitched the agreement back and forth during the past year, crime has risen jurisdiction-wide. Savannah-Chatham Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin told the commission Friday that violent crimes have grown by 24.2 percent and property crimes have risen more than 9 percent in the Savannah-Chatham jurisdiction over the same time period last year.

Unincorporated Chatham is no exception. Lumpkin said during his quarterly report to the board that violent crime in the unincorporated area is up nearly 56 percent over the previous year and property crime has increased by nearly 16 percent.

The chief said his officers are doing a lot to address the increase, from improving its neighborhood policing to implementing technology such as ShotSpotter and programs such as End Gun Violence, formerly known as Operation Ceasefire.

End Gun Violence, which Lumpkin said Friday is about a $208,000 expense to the city of Savannah, has important implications to unincorporated Chatham as well.

“I think the commission has skin in this game, for if we don’t stop them where they are, they are not going to stop,” Lumpkin told the board. “They won’t pay any attention to jurisdictional lines. That’s one thing about criminals. They do not adhere to your political boundaries.”

In other business Friday:

• The commission recognized Chatham County 4-H members, who recently ranked fourth in the state at the Forestry Field Day competition.

• County Engineer Leon Davenport reported the county will correct the incline on the newly constructed Turner’s Creek Boat Ramp after the second phase of the project — installation of restrooms, a marine patrol office, a picnic pavilion and landscaping — is under way.

• The county has upgraded its security at the Old Courthouse where the commission’s meetings are held. County Spokesman Pete Nichols provided a memo, signed Oct. 8 by County Manager Lee Smith, that requires “all persons entering the Old Courthouse ... be subject to metal detector scanning and searching of handbags, backpacks, briefcases, etc.

“There are no exceptions to any the public (sic), County Staff or County Commissioners,” the document reads.

Asked why the measure was put into place this week, Nichols pointed to a provision of the memo that said the policy had been put into place “per Georgia state law.”

Nothing in Georgia law requires a county government building to use such security measures, though the county last year did install the metal detector at the door of the Bull Street office in response to legislation commonly known as the “guns everywhere” bill, which makes it legal to carry these weapons in places that were previously off limits.

Savannah Now