Lee officials weigh public safety funding needs

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Sheriff Reggie Rachals and LSO Chief Deputy Lewis Harris pulled no punches when they met with members of the Lee County Commission in early May to discuss the sheriff's department's budget.

They made it clear that they feared for the safety of their officers.

"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," Rachals said. "And it could be the time that we're coming to one of your houses."

Rachals, Harris and Lee E-911 Director Larry Hill told the commission's Finance Committee that a new camera system in the Lee jail, an updated emergency communications system and additional manpower were needed for emergency personnel to function well.

"Right now, the thing that would best serve not just this department, but overall public safety in the county, is a new radio system," Rachals said Friday. "It's not something that we'd like to have, it's something that's necessary.

"I think our commissioners know that."

Indeed, a new 800-megahertz radio system, which is projected to cost $1.2 million, was approved as part of the Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax VI referendum that passed in early March. However, that SPLOST does not kick in until October of 2013.

Hill warned commissioners that the decrease in broadband width coming at the end of 2012 makes purchasing the new emergency radio equipment before that time a necessity.

"The Board of Commissioners is always conscious of public safety," Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said Saturday. "And for that reason, we have applied for advance funding to get the communications upgrade so desperately needed in the county. We want to do this before the bandwidth is lowered by the FCC.

"This new system will ensure that all public safety -- including the sheriff's department, EMS, fire and public works -- will have a dependable communications system in place."

Duffy also noted that funding had been approved in the Fiscal Year 2012 budget for a new camera system in the jail, but he said all but two new sheriff's vehicles had to be put on hold.

"SPLOST V included $625,500 for sheriff's vehicles, and out of that total $615,535 has been spent," the chairman said. "That's 17 vehicles. But, unfortunately, from now until SPLOST VI kicks in, any vehicles purchased for the sheriff's department will have to come out of the general fund. We were able to include two for the next fiscal year.

"SPLOST VI includes $720,000 for new vehicles, and that's 24 vehicles over the six years of the special tax. We hate that there is a void between SPLOST V and VI, but there is not enough money (in SPLOST) to buy another vehicle right now. We will evaluate needs, though, and we may have to purchase more vehicles from the

general fund if funds are available."

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

"It becomes a matter of safety," Rachals said Friday. "My people are putting their lives on the line, and these are folks who have families."

Duffy said that, despite the fireworks during budget discussions, the commission remains committed to public safety.

"We think Sheriff Rachals and his department have done an excellent job," the commission chairman said. "And they can always rest assured that we're going to do everything we can for them within our budget. We've tried to do that even in a time of weak economy and declining revenues.

"We added 15 new employees to the sheriff's department in the last two years -- nine deputies, four at the jail and two in E-911 -- and that came with an additional cost of $587,104 a year to our budget.

We're doing everything we can to give public safety what they need without adding to taxpayers' burden, but public safety will always be a priority."