Battle for the Badge: Chairman, sheriff at odds over new county police department

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - In July of this year, a decade of debate over the benefits of the Savannah-Chatham police merger came to an end.

On February 1st, 2018, a new Savannah Police Department will emerge.

That left the Chatham County Commission with a decision on how to take over policing the 8-square miles of unincorporated Chatham County. Expand the responsibilities of the Chatham County Sheriff's Office like most counties in the state, or build a new police department from scratch.

There is no question either option would get the job done. However, one would cost county taxpayers tens of millions more over the next decade.

The County Commission made its decision last month. And a self-standing, Chatham County Police Department will launch in three months.

It's an impressive package. A shiny new police department, new logos, vehicles, state of the art radios, phones systems and computer software, a new police chief and command structure and more than 100 new police officers earning top pay, benefits and bonuses.

While County Commissioner Dean Kicklighter - like the rest of the commission - has not been part of the planning for this new police force, he believes this day is long overdue.

"I was just quite pleased to get out from under the current structure which pretty much just used and abused the residents of the unincorporated area to subsidize policing efforts in the city of Savannah," Commissioner Kicklighter said.

That should not be a complaint in the future once this new Chatham County Police force in on the road.

The second option for the County Chairman, Manager and Attorney was to increase the sheriff's budget, transfer the Metro equipment to him and do what all but 11 counties in the entire state of Georgia do: entrust law enforcement to an elected, constitutional officer whose jurisdiction spans the county and the state.

That will never happen as long as Al Scott is the Commission Chair.

"I'm a countywide elected official," County Chairman Al Scott said. "So is the sheriff. I'm not going to delegate my authority to protect the unincorporated area to the sheriff."

The last thing Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher says he's going to do is fight that. He's got his hands full already managing the jail, protecting the courthouse and a dozen judges and serving court documents throughout the county.

But Sheriff Wilcher did present the county manager with a proposal that would have transferred policing responsibilities for those 8-square miles easier and cheaper.

"I can do it for probably $11 million," insists Wilcher. "$7-million is my salaries, which I gave you a copy of it since you filed an open records act for it. The difference between 7 and 11 is the unknown, what the county choses to give me."

The sheriff already has a command structure, so he wouldn't need a chief, assistant chief, majors or captains. He already has a criminal investigation division and internal affairs. He just purchased a brand new, expandable radio system and the demerger would offer up about 100 new patrol cars. That would leave him $4 million for guns, vests and other equipment.

The new independent Chatham County Police Department presents a very different financial challenge.

Chairman Scott and the county manager will have to hire from the ground up starting with a command structure that will include a new chief, assistant chief a chain of captains, corporals and lieutenants and of course, more than 100 new officers with starting salaries that rival the local competition and a sweetener: a $2,000 signing bonus for each.

Initial start-up costs for 2018, nearly $18 million. And with each passing commission meeting the realization those costs are going up. The commission just approved tax dollars for network and radio technicians, a new phone system, new radio equipment, and management software. The grand total to launch this new CCPD so far, nearly $19 million.

View the complete interview with Chatham County Chairman Al Scott below:

It's significant if you're the taxpayer footing the bill. An $8 million difference in the first year.

The county chairman was asked if he felt the added costs were really worth it.

"I don't think you can put a price on law enforcement or protecting public safety," Chairman Scott said. "I think the citizens of the unincorporated area have to feel as if they are safe and they've got the very best people running that police department."

Again, all but 11 of the 159 counties in Georgia use the sheriff as the primary law enforcement officer. In fact, in Augusta and Richmond County - perhaps the closest in size and demographics to our own - the sheriff handles law enforcement for both the city and the county.

Chairman Scott also has a different take on the capability of an elected sheriff.

"The qualification to be sheriff is pretty minimum. And what we want in a chief of police is going to be a lot more qualification, a lot more experience, and training," Scott said.

He also insisted there's no reliability in a sheriff who is up for re-election every four years.

Sheriff Wilcher sees things a bit differently.

"And on the other hand, every four years you could have a new chairman elected in the chairman's position and you can have a new county manager anytime that the chair and the county commissioners don't want him. So, you're playing apples for oranges or tit-for-tat," Sheriff Wilcher said.

Another of Scott's arguments is the sheriff didn't run for police chief.

"If the sheriff had run and the public that had voted on it knew that he would be their chief of police, that would be a different subject," Scott said.

Sheriff Wilcher said, "…and that's the county chairman's opinion, you know.  he 52,000 people that voted me in had a different opinion."

View the complete interview with Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher below:

On Wilmington Island, lifelong Chatham County residents and business owners like Clay Taglioli point to the tenure of past sheriff's here.

Taglioli points out that Carl Griffin was sheriff for 24 years. Walter Mitchell, another eight years. Al St. Lawrence was in the office for nearly 15.

The tenure of the typical police chief is not so long. According to the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, nationwide, the average appointed police chief stays with the same department for less than three years.

Like so many here, Taglioli had no idea what the county chairman was agreeing to spend on this new police force.  As a grandfather, he knows that $8 million difference could be put to much better use.

"Sheriff Wilcher is very familiar with Savannah, and the county," Taglioli said. "He's been a life-long resident. He's been in law enforcement here for most of his adult life. He knows the residents here. He knows the people."

Commissioner Kicklighter agrees the sheriff would have been the better choice.

"I would have had no problem with the sheriff taking over. I believe financially that would have been the better move, but um, but in this case, it was clear that the majority of the people that I work with on the commission felt differently," Kicklighter said.

Not exactly. The majority of the commission may have no idea what they're spending or what they're getting. For more than a month, I attempted to get these elected officials to explain their support for a standalone police force. Aside from Mr. Kicklighter, I got nothing.

And there's another cost to opening up this pricey police pack. The salaries and incentives will attract dozens of Savannah police officers off one force and onto another. The county confirms it is already sitting on more than 40 Metro applications. The city would not be surprised if that number doubled, even tripled.

It's one thing to have attrition in a police department, it's another to have a more significant exodus all at once.

"It is," admits Savannah City Manager Rob Hernandez. "And that's what makes this whole situation somewhat unique but I am comfortable we are prepared for it. I actually think we're more than prepared for it."

Savannah Police Chief Jack Lumpkin understands there is a high price to pay for the cherry picking that is now going on.

"$75,000 to actually get a police officer to the street," explained Chief Lumpkin. "And that really doesn't include the recruitment portion of it."

On top of all the other costs, recruiting and training just 50 new officers to replace the ones who are hired away by Chatham County will cost another $4 million.

And on top of all of this, Chatham County still owes the City of Savannah more than $6 million for police services provided last year and this that it has not yet paid.

Once again, my weeks of attempts to get our County Commissioners to explain their support for the cost of the new County Police Department went unanswered.

Pay close attention to your current and future property tax bills and any county efforts to raise the millage rate again.

The price for this shiny new police force is coming from one source: our tax dollars.

Right now, the county and Savannah are preparing to split the current precinct locations.

But, the city is taking steps to lease several new properties. These new locations will be leased and likely temporary. The Savannah Police Department could decide to make them permanent.

They would be located at:

  • 2250 East Victory Drive
  • Near Highway 204 and I-95
  • At the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport
  • Great Dane complex on East Lathrop Avenue

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