By Billy Corriher
A bill to allow Clayton County residents to vote on consolidating the sheriff's office and the county police department has passed the state House of Representatives and is now pending in the Senate.
Rep. Victor Hill, who proposed the bill, is a Clayton County police officer and a candidate for county sheriff. Hill, D-College Park, said there are 13 counties in Georgia that have both a sheriff's office and police department, and residents of those counties should be able to vote on consolidation because it would save taxpayers' money.
"All this does is give the people a choice in how their money is spent," Hill said.
State law now requires that any county that wants to create a separate police force hold a referendum on the issue. Hill said the law came about in 1992, shortly after Henry County created a separate police department. Hill said the creation of the police department in Henry County led to a drastic increase in the county's law enforcement budget.
After Clayton County Sheriff Stanley Tuggle and Police Chief Darrell Partain raised concerns about Hill's proposed referendum, Hill said he restructured the bill to address some of their concerns.
The proposed referendum on consolidation was pushed back to 2006, instead of 2004, to address concerns that there would not be enough time to plan the consolidation, Hill said. The bill also ensures that the 2006 vote would be a one-time referendum.
Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, did not support the bill and she questioned its timing and intent.
"No one within the (police) department asked for this, no citizens asked for this," she said. "This is strictly from Rep. Hill."
Buckner said some officers were worried about being fired if the departments were consolidated, and she said the two departments have separate, distinct responsibilities.
"Each one has a different focus as far as where their priorities are," she said.
Tuggle also said he doesn't think the county would benefit from combining the agencies any time soon.
"We won't see any savings if we do it now," he said.
Tuggle previously advocated combining the departments after the retirement of former Police Chief Ronnie Clackum and other command officers and before the new police department headquarters was built.
Tuggle said this situation would have been a more opportune time for consolidation and would have made it more efficient.
But the county commissioners did not support the idea then, and Tuggle said that even with Hill's non-binding referendum, the commissioners still make the final decision, which it could still do if it would save money in the county's tight budget.
"I don't see a need to arbitrarily put it on the ballot until the governing body? is ready to do something about it," he said.
But Jonesboro resident Deshauna Jacobs said she thinks combining the departments is a good idea if it saves taxpayers' money, and she likes having a referendum on the matter.
"It's good for the people to vote on it. It's their money," she said.
Riverdale resident Susie Bryant said consolidating the departments could cause turmoil and confusion with assigning responsibilities.
"I could see where it could create problems," she said. "You've got to make sure the cops know what they're supposed to do."