Chatham Co staff recommends the county pull out of SCMPD merger - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Chatham Co staff recommends the county pull out of SCMPD merger

Chatham Co staff recommends the county pull out of SCMPD merger

Chatham County Manager Lee Smith and county staff are recommending the county pull out of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police merger agreement, finalized a decade ago, and resurrect the old Chatham County Police Department.

The announcement was made Wednesday at the County Commission workshop on Hutchinson Island. Commissioners could vote as early as January to hire a county police chief.

"Either we make some changes to the merger, or we go our separate ways,” County Commission Chairman Al Scott said in an interview.

The county voted in September to notify the city that they planned to split from the merger in 18 months. That notification was required by the merger agreement. But negotiations continued with the city after the vote, with Scott saying in October that the city and county had reached a “verbal agreement” to continue the merger. 

Any agreement Scott had reached dissolved when county commissioners learned of it in news reports.

The city on Monday sent its latest draft agreement to the county, but county leaders said it fell short of their expectations to provide more police coverage to unincorporated Chatham County, have more authority over the unincorporated areas and pay a smaller percentage of police costs.

“Right now, negotiations with the city are difficult at best with the city of Savannah,” District 6 Commissioner Lori Brady said.

City Manager Stephanie Cutter responded with an emailed statement.

“The City has carried out merger agreement negotiations in an upfront manner, and offered significant compromises while insisting that it remain a fair document for all parties, the City of Savannah included,” she said. “While we remain committed to negotiating a fair agreement that will keep SCMPD intact, we respect the will of the Chatham County Commissioners.”

Currently, the city and county share of police costs based on population, not crime rate. County leaders have argued that since Savannah's crime rate is higher than that in the unincorporated areas of the county, it's unfair for the county to pay 39 percent of annual police costs.

"My constituents have told me that they see fewer police officers post-merger than they did pre-merger,” District 3 Commissioner Helen Stone said.

In her statement, Cutter wrote that she believes the merger should remain intact and pointed to progress within the department.

“We have made significant recent investments in policing strategy, including new officer training and development programs, and the integration of technology and violence interdiction programs that will enhance our capabilities to prevent and solve crimes,” she wrote.

Still, a majority of commissioners said Wednesday that they will vote to split from the merger unless the city suggests an agreement drastically different from the one submitted Monday.

"Right now, I would vote for it going back to the county,” said District 8 Commissioner Priscilla Thomas, who voted for the merger agreement in 2003. The merger was finalized two years later.

The county currently is paying $20.2 million a year for police services under the metro agreement. Funding a county police department would cost $13 million a year -- according to the county's estimates -- plus an initial $3.5 million to pay for equipment.

If city and county split -- the county is proposing staffing a Chatham County police department with a staff of 130. They'd start hiring officers in December 2015. Right now -- county crime statistics are going down. City officials have said it's because of the merger.

District 3 County Commissioner Tony Center doesn't buy it.

"It's not just statistics nationwide that crime is dropped,” he said. “It's nationally that crime has dropped."

Cutter – in her statement – pointed out the benefits of staying merged.

“I continue to believe that a combined City-County police department is the best way to increase public safety throughout Chatham County,” she said. “It allows Police to more efficiently deploy resources across a wide geographic area, enhances communications, and allows for more coordinated investigations, intelligence gathering and analysis.”

One concern for both city and county officials is that splitting higher-crime Savannah from the lower-crime areas of unincorporated Chatham County will spike crime statistics in Savannah. 

"We don't want to see the crime statistics go up in the city,” Scott said.

But County Manager Lee Smith told the county commission they need to act if they want to bring by the county police department before the April 1, 2015 – 18 months after the county notified the city of plans to end the merger.

"The 18 month clock is ticking,” Smith told the commission. “We need to make a decision. We need input from you."

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