Cost to taxpayers could continue to rise ahead of SCMPD demerger

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Earlier this month, the real costs of the city-county police demerger were brought to light on the Chatham County Commission chairman's willingness to spend millions of dollars to rebuild an independent police force over much cheaper and equally effective options.

Very few county taxpayers realized that the sheriff not only submitted a proposal to police the unincorporated county after the merger was dissolved, but that proposal could have saved the county nearly $8 million in the first year.

Documents prove the sheriff sent that proposal over the summer to the county chairman, attorney, and manager. All three ignored it and will now spend nearly $19 million to rebuild the old Chatham County Police Department from scratch.

But there is another player in the decision to end a 15-year law enforcement relationship. It was, after all, the Savannah City Council that voted against negotiation and for an end to the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department.

While the unwillingness of the two sides to come together will cost county taxpayers millions more every year, the city of Savannah taxpayers could be on the hook for much more in this demerger aftershock.

Many would insist the city's elected officials are wearing the same blinders as the carriage horses that help create the city's historic ambiance when making decisions about public safety and fiscal responsibility.

In July, the Savannah City Council called a bluff.

With what appeared to be no hope of compromise or even communication with Chatham County Chairman Al Scott on a renegotiated police merger, Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach called for and got a divorce. With each side remaining in their own corner, the merger was over. And with very little understanding on the part of taxpayers of the real consequences, both sides slowly and quietly began building their own police forces again.

When you ask anyone who will be the biggest loser when the demerger is finalized, the answer is the same.

"It's the taxpayers in this case," Mayor DeLoach said. "No question about it because those are the folks that are footing the bill whether you're in the county or the city. That's the ones that are losing out."

The county took back its cars, millions of dollars in equipment, three precinct buildings and then began the multi-million dollar task of building a new Chatham County Police Department from the ground up.

The city, now in need of three precincts, new branding, badges, uniforms, and technology, was in an equally desperate and expensive race against the clock. Yet, most remain calm and confidence all is well.

"We're more than prepared for it," City Manager Rob Hernandez said. "Savannah PD will be able to emerge from this really without any major disruptions whatsoever."

SCMPD Police Chief Jack Lumpkin agreed.

"February 1, we will be the Savannah PD," he said. "We will still have great quality officers and leaders.  We will be providing seamless service all the way through."

And, no doubt, the new Savannah Police Department will emerge as if nothing happened, at least until the bills start coming in.

District 1 Alderman Van Johnson has a different take on the process and the result.

"We basically said, we want a divorce. And as a result, this is costing this city millions of dollars that we did not anticipate we had to spend," he said. "And now we must buy leases. We have to rebrand, we have to go through these changes, organizational changes, all of which has really thrown this budget, in my opinion, in chaos."

Some estimates put the cost of the demerger on city taxpayers at $9 million. But those estimates likely include the hiring of dozens of new officers and the purchase of dozens of new cars. Neither, the city insists, are results of the demerger.

Most of those costs will be the result of the recommendations of the May 2017 Berkshire study, a commissioned report on the best ways to make the department more effective and efficient.

The official city numbers we received put the cost of demerging closer to $2 million, covering branding, substation leases, remodeling, furniture, etc.

The city will be adding that unexpected $2 million to a city that is already $18 million in the hole.

And, if the new Chatham County Police Department has its way, dozens of Savannah Metro officers will jump ship, potentially costing Savannah the $75,000 it took to train each officer and the $75,000 it will take to replace each of them. At last check, more than 40 Savannah Metro officers had already applied for the better pay and better benefits of the Chatham County Police Department.

Alderman Johnson insists every cut, every proposed fee and every hole in the budget is only compounded by the decision to demerge. In fact, it's his opinion that the recently proposed fire fee – which would cost homeowners nearly $400 a year – would not be necessary if things like the demerger had been better thought out.

"It relates in unnecessary bureaucracy, unnecessary funds that are being expended and again, we're in a situation where we're talking about fire fees to be able to help balance our general fund," he said.  "Again, we're spending money that we did not anticipate spending so the budget deficit. I think to say that it's a wash is absolutely ridiculous."

Those who have been following this game of chicken agree. Business and tourism leaders, civic organizations and private citizens have been pouring opinion and money into an effort to convince the council and commission to reconsider, including a $2,000 full-page Sunday newspaper ad not only chastising our elected officials for their short-sightedness but listing every one of their emails and phone numbers hoping to force a reversal.

That gets more unlikely with each passing day.

"The train has left the station," Mayor DeLoach said.

The mayor refuses to blink twice, insisting the process has simply gone too far.

With all the finger-pointing going on between the city and the county, the mayor was asked why not rescind the demerger vote and put the ball back in the county commission's court? His response will not be good news to those who think this merger still has a chance.

"Everything was set in a contract form that they signed, we signed earlier on so, basically we did everything we do by contract and to do otherwise would be wrong because that's not what we agreed to," Mayor DeLoach said.

Savannah native and downtown business leader Ruel Joyner is one who will never believe a bad decision like this one cannot be reversed.

"There are real-world implications. It's costing real money. There are real communication issues," Joyner said.

Joyner is outraged by what he calls a real lack of leadership on the city council. He once ran for a seat but perhaps his greatest accomplishment came two years ago as president of the Downtown Business Association when he got the creator of Operation Ceasefire in front of the chief. That program was adopted, but calls for across the board cooperation.

"It took us bringing in [Operation] Ceasefire here to get local, state and federal communicating. And now we're about to break the police department up into a city and a countywide government," Joyner said. "I understand 'hey, it's too late.' But, too late for what? Too late to continue a mistake? I'm not sure that's responsible. And I think we're going to continue to see real-world implications of that."

For Johnson, this failure of will is already creating a minefield between city hall and the old county courthouse that could be difficult to cross.

"If we failed at this, what other things can't we do together now, because of an unwillingness now to just get to the table, lock ourselves in a room and say, until we work it out, we're going to stay right here," Johnson said.

There is another potential cost on the horizon as a direct result of this demerger no one really wants to talk about but that could have real-world implications.

Under the merger, Savannah's crime statistics got the benefit of being watered down by the 92,000 people in the unincorporated area where crime numbers have been very low.

Now, every violent crime will raise the crime rates ratios in the city of Savannah when it comes to annual FBI Uniform Crime Reporting.

How will that impact publicity for the Hostess City? Perhaps just another afterthought in the decision to demerge.

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