Budget slice leads to GBI lab cuts dispute

ALBANY, Ga. -- The two highest-ranking government executive officers in Georgia stand on opposite sides of a law-enforcement issue.

Despite the General Assembly approving $425,000 in the budget to keep Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime labs open, the agency was told to keep one lab closed and to shutter another.

"The GBI has received its FY 2011 budget and instructions from the governor's office on implementation of the budget," a bulletin from GBI Director Vernon M. Keenan said. "The GBI crime Lab in Moultrie will remain closed, and the crime laboratory in Columbus will be closed in 90 days after July 1."

That doesn't sit well with Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville.

"We are working to keep the crime labs open because it would leave (Southwest) Georgia without a regional crime lab," Cagle spokeswoman Jaillene Hunter said. "We are concerned about the backlog of criminal case evidence processing and the burden that would be placed on local law enforcement if these labs are closed."

The cost to local taxpayers that would arise from the time needed to transport evidence to Atlanta and the cost of keeping suspects in county jail while evidence is processed for trial bother Sproul.

"It would take nine hours to take evidence to the north side of Atlanta and return," Sproul said. "The delays would keep a prisoner in (Dougherty County) jail for 30 to 90 days."

Sproul said it costs as much as $42 a day to keep a prisoner in the jail. Multiply that times 30 for one prisoner kept longer than needed, and it comes to a $1,260 unnecessary expense.

It is precisely because of such expenses during the economic downturn the state is undergoing that the labs face closure, said Bert Brantley, spokesman for the governor.

"Keeping a lab open may not be the best course of action in these economic times," Brantley said. "The state revenue is down $75 million from the same time last year. The lab in Moultrie couldn't find a forensic scientist to work there. The lab in Atlanta did most of the work for the (state) labs. The other labs would mean less money for the main lab."

Brantley said if the regional labs were kept open and there was a further downturn in revenue, they could face closure in the future.

The Moultrie facility was closed April 1 due to prior budget cuts, said George Herrin, deputy director of forensic science at the bureau.

"The GBI Crime Lab system is making necessary adjustments to continue providing essential forensic services to law enforcement agencies and courts within Georgia as quickly and efficiently as possible," Herrin said.