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Court officials, sheriff lash out on budget

By Justin Boron

jboron@news-daily.com

Three Clayton County court officials and the sheriff Tuesday said they would be unable to cope with the impact of soaring crime unless the Board of Commissioners yields and gives them more money out of next year's budget.

The demands, which came during a public hearing for the proposed budget, were critical of County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell's preparation of the county's financial plan for the next year.

Bell has said he clamped down on new expenses to avoid a tax hike and make room for future costs of pending litigation and public transportation.

The sheriff, district attorney and the solicitor general say their budgets have been cut $641,632 from the last budget. The chief magistrate budget improvements are necessary for her to keep up with the growing crime rate.

The conservatism - which left the four elected officials with almost none of their requests recommended in the proposed budget - fanned the flames of discontent with Bell, who had blocked the group's legislative pay raises earlier in the year.

In a news conference after the hearing, the four officials said the treatment of their departments appeared politically motivated.

Sheriff Victor Hill and District Attorney Jewel Scott also said they would pursue legal action if left with no recourse. A fight in the courts would pile more litigation on the government already entrenched in lawsuits stemming from the sheriff's firings in January.

Scott and Hill only touched on the possibility of a lawsuit though. The central argument for budget concessions was made on a platform of crime, to which each official contributed with telling statistics of the past five months of violence since they took office in the county.

Chief Magistrate Judge Daphne Walker said her court has been hard pressed to keep up with the number of accused criminals who must go through her court for bond issuance and preliminary hearings.

"I'm one of the most known people in the county because in the last week we've been on television for the increase of crime in this county," said Walker, who also cited a two-fold increase in the number of criminal warrants issued in January.

Scott, who budget reports show asked for $659,850 in staff improvements for three assistant district attorneys and six investigators, said the 29 murder cases in her office already have surpassed last year's amount by six, less than halfway into the year.

She also said she anticipates there will be 1,500 more felonies in her office than last year.

"When we fail to process cases . . . then the ripple effect is felt in the jail," she said.

Scott's complaint segued neatly into Hill's demand for more personnel to alleviate an understaffed jail.

He said the jail is about 350 inmates below capacity yet there are 68 people sleeping on the floor.

Hill requested $6.3 million in staff improvements for 135 new sheriff positions, according to preliminary budget reports. Most of those positions were correctional officers that would work in the jail.

Solicitor General Leslie Miller-Terry said because her office gets both felonies and misdemeanors she could have as many as 40,000 cases.

During the presentations, the county commission mostly remained silent, thanking the officials after each presentation and raising the occasional question.

None of them specifically said they would not grant the officials' requests.

Bell also reminded them that he didn't intend to ignore them before Tuesday. Instead, he said the hearing was the appropriate arena for their input so the full commission could decide whether to grant their requests.

While several departments either lost out or got no improvement in the proposed budget, the county commission office is recommended to get three new positions: a constituent services coordinator, a public relations specialist, and an executive assistant.

Stanley Byars, one of the few citizens that spoke at the hearing, said that the need for the court officials' improvements outweighed the public relations and constituent services position.

The staff attorney's office also was proposed to get an additional attorney and an environmental judge to handle county code violations.

Not all of the demands by the elected officials were so rigid that the elected officials said they would not compromise.

Walker offered to begin handling the environmental court violations if the county commission gave her an extra magistrate.

The county commission is scheduled to adopt the $136.6 million budget next Tuesday. The budget would be a 1.2 percent increase over last year's budget. It would add 43 new positions down from 62 last year. It is not expected to require a tax rate increase. The county commission has called a special budget work session for Friday at 10 a.m. at 112 Smith Street, Jonesboro.