Policing issue unfolds

Published 12:51 am Saturday, February 12, 2011

Daily News Staff

Dialogue about the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office taking over policing duties in Washington came about, in part, as a possible way for the city to cut expenses, according to officials.
Councilman Doug Mercer, long a proponent of cutting unnecessary city expenditures, responded by e-mail to an inquiry regarding the matter.
“I asked about the possibility of the Sheriff’s Dept. doing the City policing and Chief Deputy (Harry Meredith) put together some very preliminary cost and staffing numbers which he provided to me. I had asked some question about this information of the Chief Deputy. The concept had not been presented to the five Council members or the County Commissioners or any city or county staff,” Mercer wrote. “Earlier this week I had a call from a citizen asking about this concept because they had received an e-mail about the possibility. That afternoon (Tuesday), I shared the information (from) the Chief Deputy with the City Manager. I also then contacted all five City Council members and all seven County Commissioner(s) and discussed my inquiry of the Sheriff’s Dept. and the response I had received.”
Meredith, chief deputy of the sheriff’s office, said Mercer approached him a couple of months ago. The councilman informed Meredith that he was looking into the possibility of outsourcing some services provided by city departments, including the police department.
Meredith said Mercer told him the City Council would need numbers to consider in its upcoming budget deliberations, so the chief deputy complied with his request and compiled figures related to outsourcing law enforcement, acting on the authority of Sheriff Alan Jordan.
“The number is fluid,” Meredith advised in an interview.
Meredith’s summary of one-year estimated costs to add police staff to the sheriff’s office is $2,679,475. This includes a one-time cost of $484,491.
According to the city budget for fiscal year 2010-2011, the city’s total allocation for the police department is $2,861,957.
The budget for the city’s telecommunications office is $441,488.
These combined costs are around $3.3 million.
Jordan isn’t playing a role in Mercer’s preliminary concept, and rumors that the sheriff is somehow driving this process are inaccurate, Meredith said.
“I’ve already heard the rumors that it’s some type of hostile takeover, and that is not correct,” he said. “That is not what he (Jordan) wants at all.”
Meredith added the sheriff is willing to discuss Mercer’s proposal with local officials, including council members and the Beaufort County commissioners.
“He does not particularly want this to happen,” Meredith said of the sheriff, adding Jordan would be willing to take the proposal under consideration if it proved cost effective and would better serve county residents.
Jordan’s support also would depend on the endorsement of the City Council and the commissioners, Meredith pointed out.
“I’m aware that conversations have taken place. Having not been a part of those conversations, I don’t feel it would be appropriate for me to comment on the topic at hand,” Mick Reed, Washington’s police chief, said Friday.
Reed said he is focused making sure the department provides the best police services possible to Washington residents.
Meanwhile, Mercer confirmed the discussion is related to council efforts to reduce city expenditures.
“It is just one of many cost saving ideas which the Council has put on our discussion list. If the level of service is equal to or better at a reduced cost I feel like it should be considered,” he wrote.
At a recent budget-planning session, council members discussed the possibility of outsourcing some services now provided by the city as a way to reduce city expenditures. At that session, Mercer said the city should explore residential garbage collection. Mayor Pro Tempore Bobby Roberson said the city should look at outsourcing commercial garbage collection, too.
Councilman Gil Davis suggested looking at outsourcing mowing work performed by city public-works and recreation employees.
“We have to look at it. If it’s cheaper, we have to think about it,” Davis said at that session.
Mercer’s e-mail further discusses the matter.
“Additional information is certainly needed for any further discussions, but I feel we should explore this and any other program which does not impair City services but reduces our operating cost,” he wrote.
“I certainly (think) that it is far (too) early in the discussion process to even discuss going forward with the concept. There must be extensive evaluation by the Council and if we want to go forward at that point then there must be proposal to the County and they will also have to review and concur. (T)hen the specifics will have to be worked out. (A)s you know this will take a considerable amount of time before any final decision can be made,” Mercer concluded.
Council member William Pitt also responded by e-mail to inquiries about the matter.
“Council member Mercer contacted me Wednesday and that was seekin(g) information and noted that he had made contact with county officials. In answer to your second question the BCSO is an excellent efficient law enforcement agency.” Pitt wrote. “The Washington Police (Department) is the largest municipal police dept in the county. Its unique (practice) of traditional and community policing coupled with programs like Project Next Step to offer new solutions to traditional problems. The enforcement of small rules prevent small problems from becoming bigger. Things like that are an example of what our police department does. True, the efficiency of money is important but first and foremost … citizen safety is paramount. I was elected to make sound decisions and listen to and be the voice of those who have elected me.”
The city is required by state law to provide police protection within its city limits, said Pete Connet, interim city manager, during a brief interview Friday.
In an e-mail Connet sent to council members and other city officials, Connet asked that they provide him with any e-mails they sent or received regarding the matter. Just before 5 p.m. Thursday, the Washington Daily News requested it be provided copies of any such e-mails. Recipients of Connet’s e-mail were asked to provide copies of those e-mails, if they exist, to Connet by noon Monday.
In a series of interviews, four of the seven Beaufort County commissioners who could be reached for comment Friday said Mercer had contacted them directly or they had otherwise heard about Mercer’s proposal. None of the commissioners indicated they had any specific information about a definite proposal.
“I don’t know anything other than it’s being talked,” said Commissioner Hood Richardson.
For additional coverage of this issue, see Sunday’s edition.