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Lab closings protested

ATLANTA, Ga. -- A recent move by Gov. Sonny Perdue to pull money the General Assembly allocated specifically to keep the Columbus and Moultrie state crime labs open has drawn the ire of both the House and Senate leadership, while leaving many in Southwest Georgia to wonder if he has a beef with this part of the state.

With time ticking down in this year's session of the General Assembly, south Georgia lawmakers -- who had been faced with the closures of the labs because of cuts to funding made in an effort to close a budget deficit -- were able to scrape up the money and place it in the budget for the Fiscal Year 2011 that begins July 1.

But earlier this month, at the request of Perdue, GBI Director Vernon Keenan removed the funding for the labs from the GBI budget in a move that caught Colquitt County Sheriff Al Whittington, who had testified before the House Appropriations Committee on the importance of the Moultrie facility, by surprise.

"It's ludicrous to me that the governor can make a decision like this on something the Legislature has allocated," Whittington said. "We're already shorthanded on staff and resources to begin with and, to put it simply, it will just make the situation worse."

In a June 8 letter to Georgia Bureau of Investigation personnel that was obtained by The Albany Herald, Keenan writes that the "GBI Crime Lab in Moultrie will remain closed and the crime laboratory in Columbus will be closed within 90 days after July 1, 2010. All available funding will be utilized to effectively run the laboratory system and continue to provide the forensic services that you require at our remaining facilities."

Perdue spokesperson Chris Schrimpf said the governor believed that the labs in Moultrie and Columbus weren't the most efficient use of that funding, given that those labs were incapable of providing the same services as the lab in Atlanta.

"He was trying to make the most efficient use of funds," Schrimpf said. "The local labs weren't able to perform the same types of services and were already outsourcing much of the work."

Schrimpf said that the governor has not decided where to reallocate the funding.

The state's political heavyweights have stepped into the fray, asking Perdue to reinstate the funding for the labs and arguing that their closure will lead to a backlog in the remaining labs.

Lawmakers said they also believe the closures will affect pending prosecutions where evidence processing is vital and will become "unduly burdensome" on local law enforcement.

"... (T)he closures in Moultrie and Columbus leave gaping holes in service delivery and will undermine efforts to maintain public safety," states a letter signed by Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill and House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin.

"We believe this could be devastating to the work of local law enforcement, prosecutors, the court system and then ultimately impacting the lives of crime victims," the four officials wrote.

The four are asking that Perdue reconsider his decision and to request Keenan to use the funds to reopen and repair the Moultrie Lab and to keep the Columbus lab open.

Schrimpf says the governor has received the letter and is aware of their concerns, but has yet to make a decision on the lieutenant governor and lawmakers' request.

When asked about the possible backlog of cases that could arise from a flow of evidence into Atlanta from the 50 counties that were once serviced by the two labs, Schrimpf said that the governor believes the laboratory system can handle it.

"By having a central location, you'd be able to do things more efficiently or add more staff to deal with any possible backlog," Schrimpf said.

Whittington said the governor could be walking into a legal issue by undermining the General Assembly's efforts to secure the GBI network of labs, which he and the lawmakers say is part of Georgia law.

"One-third of the state will be left without access to a local crime lab if this happens," Whittington said. "If the present governor doesn't understand the importance of these facilities, then we plan to make sure come January 1 whoever is sitting at that desk does."

In the letter, the Legislature's leadership addresses the same issue.

"Georgia law clearly articulates the General Assembly's responsibility to fund a 'state-wide system of laboratories.' We believe the closing of the only two labs west of Interstate 75 does not fulfill our obligation to this area of the state," it says.

When contacted this week about the situation, a Ralston spokesperson said the speaker is optimistic the governor will honor the General Assembly's legislative intent.

Lowndes County and the city of Valdosta have teamed up to form their own lab to try to address the shortage, which is something Whittington said he may have to use.