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Lee sheriff: Safety shortchanged

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Lewis Harris' impassioned opening statement was so intense during the final session of county budget hearings Thursday afternoon, there was a brief period of uncomfortable silence afterward that Lee Commissioner Rick Muggridge broke with a pointed reminder.

"I'd like to point out, we're not the enemy," Muggridge said.

Harris, Lee Sheriff Reggie Rachals and several members of the sheriff's office who attended the session certainly seemed to be at odds with commissioners during the session in which Finance Committee member Bill Williams informed the law enforcement officials that their budget requests for eight new officers and six of eight new vehicles were being denied.

"I really didn't expect to get the manpower this year, even though there is a need," Rachals said after the session. "But it's really disappointing not to get the vehicles we requested. We thought there was SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) funds available for vehicle purchases.

"We don't want to seem unreasonable. We're out there in this; we know how it is. But it's hard to fight off a morale problem when you've got such dedicated officers who do their jobs so well but have to work with substandard equipment."

While Harris pointed out in his opening statement that vehicles were supposed to be purchased utilizing SPLOST funds and should not be counted against the sheriff's budget requests, Williams said most of the (SPLOST V) funds that had been designated for vehicle purchases had been used.

"There's about $7,000 in that account now, and that will not buy a car," Williams said. "Until the new SPLOST kicks in (in 2013), any vehicle purchases will have to come from the general fund."

Rachals bemoaned the commission's recently approved plans to build a library/conference center in the southwestern part of the county, saying the timing was not right for such a project.

"I am all for education, 100 percent for it," the sheriff said. "In fact, if not for education, our jail would stay full. But we need to take a closer look at where our money is going. We've got $2 million going into this library at a time when we have serious public safety needs.

"I am not against the library, but I think this is a really bad time to build one. We've got deeper issues in this county that are more important than a library, and at the top of that list is public safety."

Rachals said eight of his department's vehicles have more than 150,000 miles on them and two of them have topped 200,000.

"Every time one of my men gets in one of those vehicles, I cringe from worrying that one of the cars with so many freaking miles on them is going to fall apart," he said. "And it could be the time that we're coming to one of your houses.

"This is not just about the safety of my deputies, it's about the safety of the citizens of Lee County."

Harris was more pointed in his remarks.

"Part of my job as chief deputy is to look out for Sheriff Rachals and to inform the County Commission of this department's needs," he said.

"One of the things we need is a courthouse security system. In 2009, Sheriff Rachals submitted a proposal for one to Chief Judge Rucker Smith, and it was approved. It was later approved by this board, too, but it's still not in place.

"In the meantime, there have been a number of incidents at the courthouse where that system was needed. We've been told by (Maintenance Director) John Patrick that he's waiting on Sheriff Rachals to get bids. But Sheriff Rachals has done his part.

Apparently it's going to take someone getting hurt or killed before action is taken."

Harris also noted that the camera system in the jail does not have the capacity to record activities, leaving the department and the county open to possible lawsuits.

"I want to inform you that in the event of a lawsuit, they're going to come after the sheriff, but they're going to come after the County Commission as well," Harris said.

Harris angrily called out "one of the commissioners" for what he said were comments on a television newscast that "blamed half of the $2 million the county was over budget on the sheriff's department."

"People see that, and they come up to us and ask why we're putting the budget out of balance a million dollars," Harris said. "This is a working budget, a budget request. We knew we weren't going to get everything we asked for, but to put it out to the public in the media that we were the cause for the budget being out of balance is just wrong."

Commissioners Muggridge, Williams and Ed Duffy said after the meeting they hadn't made such a statement to any television reporter. Neither Albany TV station had a reporter at Thursday's budget hearings.

Harris finished with perhaps his most passionate statements of the session.

"Yesterday, we had a deputy call for backup in Walmart," he said. "No one could hear his radio, so he had to get on his private cell phone and call dispatch. Dispatch had to call him back on his phone to check his status because none of our deputies could hear his radio transmission.

"I don't know where you stand on our request for a (800 megahertz) radio system, but at this time it is more important than a library. When one of our deputies is killed in the line of duty because of our radio system, I'm going to come to each and every one of you and tell you 'I told you so.' And I will not be happy."

Williams and Duffy pointed out that the commission had increased public safety personnel and had purchased a number of new vehicles over the last two years. Muggridge noted the increase in the sheriff's budget.

"Two years ago, we increased our overall budget by 4 percent and increased the sheriff's budget by 9 percent," Muggridge said. "Last year we decreased our budget by 1 percent and increased the sheriff's budget by 5 percent.

"I hate that we're coming into this animosity."

Harris immediately responded.

"There's no animosity, but when a commissioner goes to the news media and says we're $1 million over budget and the cause of the county's problems, we can't help but be concerned," he said. "What I'm trying to do is let you know about the courthouse security system and our need for a new radio system.

"Because when we have to go to a department funeral, I think I'll let y'all talk to the wife and children and explain why."

Muggridge told the sheriff's officials that the county did intend to purchase the 800-megahertz radio system, which E-911 Director Larry Hill said had to be in place before 2012 when broadband width will be decreased, by borrowing the funding to pay for it before SPLOST VI kicks in Oct. 1, 2013.

"You ask who the enemy is here, and it's money, it's income, it's revenue," Duffy said. "We've had to cut money from every department in Lee County because we made a commitment not to increase the millage rate in this economy.

"We're all hurting here, and we're all going to have to get through this together."

The Finance Committee ended up cutting $463,465 from Rachals' $3,536,567 budget request, leaving $3,073,102. That total is a $10,667 increase from the department's fiscal year 2011 budget.

In all, the committee trimmed $1,697,020 from overall requests, leaving the county with a budget of $20,795,942. That total is a $200,994 decrease from the FY 2011 budget of $20,996,936.

The full commission is expected to vote to approve the final version of the budget at its June 28 meeting.