Fire Station 10 on Gillionville Road is one of four stations currently located in the unincorporated portion of Dougherty County. A recent county fire protection study points to significant additional costs for the county if it developes an independent fire department. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — There was no shortage of topics for Dougherty County Commissioners to discuss at their recent one-day retreat, the county’s pending budget looming large, but one issue in particular that drew commissioners’ interest was the release of studies conducted by the University of Georgia-based Carl Vinson Institute of Government on law enforcement and fire services in the county’s unincorporated area.
And while the authors of the extensive studies, which looked at the feasibility of law enforcement options and development of an independent fire department in the so-called special services district, didn’t make specific recommendations, county officials say the studies offer fact-based evidence that they’re on the right track when it comes to public safety in the unincorporated portion of the county.
“These are topics that have come up again and again,” County Administrator Richard Crowdis said. “The commission has frequently been asked to consider cost-saving options for law enforcement and fire safety, and with a new intergovernmental agreement between the city and county currently being negotiated, we felt this was the perfect time to take a detailed look at our options.
“The Carl Vinson Institute analyzed those issues based solely on facts provided to them. Theirs is a well-respected outsider’s view that provided pros and cons on all options presented.”
CVI’s primary deduction made on the law enforcement study, which compared the status quo of police protection by the Dougherty County Police Department with enforcement by the Dougherty Sheriff’s Office or the Albany Police Department, was that the most logical method of cutting costs is to simply cut DCP manpower.
The study concluded that contractual enforcement services provided by the sheriff’s office would not be viable under Georgia law and that law enforcement services provided by APD would not only be more costly, such a move would take authority over the agency responsible for enforcement out of the hands of the board elected by the people being served.
“At the end of the day, the study concluded that the way to provide the highest level of law enforcement at the most efficient cost is the method that’s in place,” County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said. “It then becomes a matter of the citizens in the unincorporated area deciding if they want the same level of services or if they want to reduce costs by reducing staffing.
“If the study had said we’d get a 5, 10, 15 percent or higher savings by using one of the other options, we’d be looking at ways to do it. But with 90 percent of the tax money in that district going to law enforcement and fire safety, we wanted to make sure we were using the best, most cost-efficient method possible.”
The study concerning development of an independent fire department in the special services district was much more cut-and-dried. The CVI study revealed that the numbers simply would not work, that costs and an immediate decrease in ISO ratings — which would mean significant insurance increases for many in the district — more than negated any perceived benefits for such a change.
“The bottom line is that we are saving a considerable amount of money under the current intergovernmental fire agreement with the city of Albany,” Crowdis said. “When you take into account the additional costs and the insurance adjustments, the bottom line is pretty clear.”
Call for the studies grew increasingly more prominent after the County Commission voted in 2012 to raise the tax millage rate in the special services district. It was during discussions of the tax increase that District 4 Commissioner Ewell Lyle made an “outside-the-box” recommendation to move DCP out of its facility at Habersham and Lowe roads into the sheriff’s office. Lyle insisted that the recommendation was not to consolidate the two forces but to cut costs on facilities.
“Don’t think about consolidation, takeovers … or years past, think about how to cut costs,” Lyle said during a June 11, 2012 commission meeting. “Move the Dougherty County Police into the Sheriff’s office, mustering there, but get rid of the cost of this ridiculously inefficient HQ (headquarters) the county police are having to contend with.”
Lyle and District 2 Commissioner John Hayes voted against the tax increase, which was approved by a 4-2 vote, and he said last week he felt justified in that vote.
“The tax digest in the special services district has been eroding for years,” he said. “I believe our folks have done a good job of reducing their budget, but there’s only so much you can cut without reducing staffing. I think that’s something we have to consider because the low salaries in the department take their toll with manpower and morale.
“We need to look at (personnel) cuts to give our DCP officers pay increases. That’s one of those things where you have to take a hard look at how much law enforcement you really need.”
Hayes said that topic has been discussed by citizens in his district at regular meetings he conducts.
“First of all, there is no simple solution,” the District 2 commissioner said. “And this matter (of police protection) is important not only to our citizens, but to our police officers as well. It’s their safety that is at stake (with understaffing), too.
“Certainly not all citizens feel this way, but a lot of the feedback I’m getting in my district is that the citizens would rather have a slight increase in the millage rate than to cut the services of DCP. And even though I voted against the increase, I think it’s worked out OK for the citizens who were affected.”
The Vinson Institute fire study indicated that the county would need to spend $3,862,016 to start an independent fire station, some $850,000 more than the county currently pays in its agreement with the city. That 20-year agreement is up at the end of the current fiscal year (June 30), though, and city officials have indicated that cost discrepancy should be taken into account during negotiations for a new agreement.
“We’re negotiating right now, but certainly we feel that (county costs) will increase under the new agreement,” Crowdis said. “I don’t know how much; we’re working on that now. I believe it can be resolved to both the city’s and the county’s satisfaction at the professional staff level.”
The fire protection discrepancy became a matter of contention during recent city/county local-option sales tax division negotiations, which the city reluctantly voted at the 11th hour to leave at current levels despite seeking a much larger share. Their rallying cry after that vote, though, was “remember this during intergovernmental agreement negotiations.”
Crowdis said he’s seen no carryover hostilities during negotiations with city staff.
“We know there will be an increase (in county payments) in the fire agreement, and justifiably so,” the county administrator said. “But as for ongoing hard feelings over the LOST discussions, I haven’t perceived any. That’s the way things are in government: Today it’s this, tomorrow it’s something else. I’m confident we’ll be able to reach an agreement that is acceptable to the city and county.”