Heated discussion over police study ensues at Chatham County Commission meeting

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - Chatham County Commissioners held their first proposed budget hearing for the 2018 budget on Friday.

The meeting was packed full of people interested in speaking out on what they think needs to be added or taken away from the budget before July 1. County Manager, Lee Smith, has already called the proposed budget a financial reality checkup.

We caught up with Chairman Al Scott who says they have about 10 work days to have their budget ready because they want to be able to have it prepared for the Millage Levy public hearing on June 23.

An increase in the millage rate by 1.6 mills has been outlined as a worst case scenario by the county manager, having to do with the county's involvement in the Metro Police merger over the past two years and the upcoming increase in police costs. All of this is based on the Berkshire Study. One man told us he can't afford his property taxes in unincorporated Chatham County to be raised by 40.99 percent.

"I understand they were going to raise the unincorporated areas by about 41 percent. I am a long-time employee here and I have a business here, and I have ended up with not a lot of retirement and I am on social security. I really can't afford a 41 percent increase in my property taxes," said Chatham County resident, Billy Holloway.

The meeting between the commissioners and Berkshire advisors got rather headed, and commissioners weren't shy about voicing their displeasure with the study, which was put together by advisors within nine months.

"They gave you this funding formula and said, 'If you have this many officers, the response time would be 10 minutes. If you have this many, it will be seven minutes.' And then when I challenged him on the fact that your response time on the West Side was twice that of any place else in the county, that there would have to be an outlier. Why? And he couldn't answer that," said Chairman Scott.

Right now, everyone is trying to analyze the impact of the evidence based funding formula provided through the police study, but commissioners were in an uproar claiming the study did not do what it was intended to do. The study has provided information on precincts, management, and more, but the commission wants information about police beats. Berkshire's consultant admitted proxies were used when data wasn't available.

When we asked Chairman Scott what's next, he said "This was the preferred consultant by the former city manager. They were hired and it was inked and we have to live with it. It does not mean we have to follow it or accept it in it's entirety. We can take what is good in it, and what it bad in it we can throw out."

County Manager Smith says they're still working on everything. The next two millage levy public hearings will be held on June 15 at 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the Old Chatham County Courthouse.

Chairman Scott says he wants to see more realistic data be used in the funding formula, and that means lots of extra work for the county. The 1.6 mils increase proposed for this year's budget is directly tied to the funding formula.

A group of people also attended the commission meeting Friday to show support for the Tiny House Project, which aims to take homeless veterans off the streets. Those with Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless attended the meeting to try to gain the support of the commissioners to fund the project. The Authority's executive director asked for everyone support the project to stand behind her. According to the Authority, there are 238 homeless veterans in Chatham County. The project to create the tiny houses along Dundee Street has a total cost of $1.7 million. The group asked for the county to contribute $246,000 in the upcoming budget, saying it could house 72 veterans and would have countless other benefits.

"It is a bargain and we know one hospital stay or one emergency room stay can cost more than that. We want to rethink how we house folks and what it really costs, both in dollars and the negative impact of those who don't have the opportunity," said Cindy Kelley, Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless.

At least three of the commissioners supported the work on the project. There is no word yet on if the $246,000 will be added.

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