By Kathy Jefcoats
The Henry County Fraternal Order of Police opposes the proposed merger of the Henry Sheriff's Office and Henry Bureau of Police Services, taking the position that consolidation will not save taxpayers money.
"There's no way this can be a tax-saving project," said FOP secretary/treasurer Ken Turner.
The Henry Board of Commissioners can vote to merge the two departments but state legislation prevents members from creating a police department without a public referendum. Outgoing Chairman Leland Maddox reportedly supports consolidating the departments, separate since 1991. The sheriff's office operates under an elected sheriff, a constitutional officer who answers to his constituents. The police department is headed up by a chief appointed by the board of commissioners.
Each department manages a multi-million dollar budget but both Sheriff Donald Chaffin and Police Chief Henry White Jr. say they need more money. The county jail is overcrowded and White said he needs more officers.
"How does consolidation save money?" Turner said. "The needs will still exist whether it is one department or two."
Sheriff's deputies oversee jail operations, provide courtroom security and serve warrants. The police department works patrol and traffic, and conducts criminal investigations.
Turner also questions the timing of the proposal, after candidates qualified for sheriff and other local offices at the end of April.
"Why didn't they get the ball rolling before qualifying?" he said. "This could have been the opportunity for the right people with qualifications within the police department to have a shot at running this thing. Whether it was intentional or not, I don't know. It certainly smells like it."
Chaffin, sheriff for 22 years, is being challenged by Jim Cox. Chaffin supports consolidation and sued unsuccessfully to prevent the 1991 division but Cox thinks there is room in the county for both departments. Cox accuses Maddox of working to merge the departments before leaving office in December, largely as a favor to Chaffin.
Turner is also critical of a $650,000 study authorized by the county commissioners and conducted by KPMG to determine the cost-efficiency of local government departments a study paid for with tax dollars.
"They spent more than a half million dollars to see how the county could be cost-efficient but nobody asked if merging would save the county money," he said.
Turner said there is also the question of division of duties. In each department, there are already men and women who have achieved ranks with officers under them. With a merger, what happens to the leadership?
"It's called a span of control," said Turner. "A reasonable span is three-five subordinates. Five-seven are doable but anything over that, you're opening Pandora's box because things will go awry very quickly."
Henry is the smallest metro Atlanta county with a county police department. Using the most complete U.S. Census Bureau figures, Henry County's 2000 population was 119,341. Until this year when it slipped in rank to sixth, Henry was the third fastest growing county in the country.
In 2000, Fulton's population topped out at 816,606, followed by DeKalb with 665,865, Cobb with 607,751, Gwinnett with 588,488, and Clayton with 236,517. All those counties have a separate police department.
Metro Atlanta counties without county police departments include Cherokee, Forsyth, Paulding, Bartow, Douglas, Carroll, Coweta, Fayette, Newton and Rockdale.
Turner said a county police department is needed to keep up with the demands of a growing Henry County.
"The county is already way too big to operate government like some rural county," he said. "We are growing into a metropolic and if they don't do something now to address public safety, they're going to be in the same shape they are now with the infrastructure. We're not ahead of the power curve yet and it's only going to get worse."
As with most projects, a merger will likely come down to dollars and cents. The speculation is that if enough taxpayers believe it will save money, public opinion will favor consolidation. Turner wants to see the figures.
"Where's the plan?" he said. "I want someone to show me where this will save money."