By Lee Weyhrich
CLAY — A special public hearing regarding a Clay police department bled over into the pre-council and city council meetings Monday night, and it appears councilman Ricky Baker’s plan to increase police protection with a dedicated Clay police force had virtually been dismissed before it was even discussed.
The new budget, which passed during the regular Council meeting, called for an expansion of the deputy program by two officers and the money for those officers appears to come in part from money that had not yet been un-earmarked when the budget was finalized.
Ordinance 2014-04 earmarked money from the new two millage property tax solely for the creation of a police force or school system. Since the only part of that ordinance that specified the use of the funds was in the title, council members Ben Thackerson, Becky Johnson and Mayor Charles Webster voted to change that title to read “An Ordinance Levying Ad Valorem Taxes for the Use and Support of the General Fund of the City of Clay, Alabama.” Councilmen Ricky Baker and Kevin Small voted against the change in the ordinance.
These items were already on the agenda in finalized form before the hearing regarding a local police force.
The hearing opened with Carl Chamblee, a Trussville municipal judge for 32 years, stating crime is on the rise as is the “quality” of the criminals coming through the court system. Whereas in the past most offenders were petty criminals, a growing number are showing up with extensive, violent criminal records, he said. He estimates more than 90 percent of those come from outside the City of Trussville.
Chamblee is a supporter of a local municipal police force and believes it builds community.
“One of the advantages of having your own police force is -= and I’m sure the deputy sheriffs are very qualified — part of policing in my opinion is to develop relationships with businesses, (and) with the citizens of the city the police serve. It is hard to do that with deputy sheriffs that are here on a contractual basis, ” Chamblee said.
He added that while schools and parks are important, a sense of security is paramount, and part of that comes from officers who are part of the community.
Mayor Charles Webster and City Manager Ronnie Dixon argue that the deputies are part of the community.
“All the deputies that we’ve hired since I’ve been here (are part of the community), and I know for a fact that those guys give their personal cell phone numbers out to people and they do have that personal touch,” Webster said.
Webster also explained by using contract deputies they not only have access to their own deputies, but every deputy in the area, thus effectively expanding their police force when necessary at no additional cost. The county provides support to municipalities who have police forces as well, when the need arises, however.
Only the specific deputies under contract can enforce the city’s codes and ordinances, however. Clay resident Beth Goodwin said the deputies who have responded to her calls have told her they cannot enforce Clay ordinances because they are not contract deputies.
Webster stated there are a lot of other factors which make using contract deputies advantageous over a municipal force. For one, in the case of a disaster the sheriff’s department absorbs the overtime costs. In case of a major incident multiple local deputies can respond — not just those under contract.
In addition to speed and numbers, Webster touted the immunity deputies have that city police officers do not. Judge Chamblee said that municipal officers have the same immunity, however.
Baker estimates a force as he proposes it with 12 officers would cost around $850,000, plus the cost of dispatch. The money to pay for a force would come from the funds expected from the two millage increase, plus the amount of money already being spent on contract deputies. Dixon said Jefferson County Sergeant John Pennington estimated nine officers, court services and other considerations would cost $2.25 million dollars – not $880,000.
“I actually disagree with everything (the mayor and city manager) just said,” Baker said. “Tarrant has 21 officers and four dispatchers, and it is my understanding , unless they lied to me, their total budget is $1.7 million, not nine officers for 2.5 million. I don’t know where those numbers come from except from that one particular police officer. I’m sure they wanted to keep our business and that’s why it is so high.”
He added that if having contract deputies was so great Clay, Pinson, Center Point and possibly one other city would not be the only municipalities of their size in the county using that service.
Dixon added there are some costs Baker did not account for in his estimate, including a one-time startup cost of $300,000 for a police records computer system with a $55,000 annual certificate and maintenance. The court record system is an additional initial cost of $50,000 with an $8,000 annual certificate and maintenance.
Dixon said there are numerous other unseen costs that have not been accounted for.
Baker said regardless of cost, the city is at a crossroads in regard to crime and public safety and they can choose to either be proactive or reactive. Councilman Kevin Small agreed that a show of force now could help prevent an increase in crimes later, by enforcing the smaller crimes now.
“Whether it is a police force or adding more deputies, the number one thing I heard during election when I ran three years ago, and the thing I continue to hear people say is (That we do not want to become like Center Point). When I went to Hewitt-Trussville, I had a lot of friends in Center Point and they lived in nice houses in Center Point. It was a nice neighborhood. Now I would argue that the cars people drove here tonight are worth more than some of those same houses in Center Point. And the thing I keep hearing is that we do not want Clay to be like Center Point and we need an increased (police) presence.”