By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — Police Chief Dwayne Hobbs told the Forest Park City Council Wednesday his best officers are being lured away by better-paying municipalities.
Hobbs told council members during his budget meeting the city can't compete with newly-formed, wealthier communities such as Sandy Springs and Milton.
"Sandy Springs stole two detectives, Milton got one of my more experienced officers and the Secret Service got a better detective," he said. "I can't blame them if they can get more money somewhere else."
The police department's proposed 2013-2014 budget reflects a $224,210 variance from last year's salaries. Hobbs said the department has 11 vacancies, including four officers who would be dedicated to patrolling Fort Gillem once the former Army base transfers completely into Forest Park ownership.
"Right now, there's not enough to do out there," he said. "We're watching for breaches along the fence and for scrappers trying to steal scrap metal. There's a single point of entry that requires a code so that's easy enough to control."
City Manager John Parker said it will be close to another year before the property will warrant a more active police presence. Hobbs said the situation as it is is manageable.
"We're overlapping zones 5 and 3 to get patrols in there now," he said. "Our officers are getting familiar with the trails, there are lots of hiding places out there. At one time, there were people living in the woods. We're keeping a close eye on it, we can handle it pretty well because there is no traffic or calls for service."
Mayor David Lockhart appeared alarmed at the notion of overall reduced police protection.
"Of all the possible functions a city can do, personal protection should be priority one," he said. "If we have to find cuts, we have to find cuts. Either we gave you $200,000 too much last year, which I doubt it true, or you're going to feel that reduction of $200,000."
Hobbs agreed that losing funding hurts.
"Any cuts sting," he said. "But we looked at what we could forgo and still do the job without breaks in service."
Hobbs said, depending on the officer's experience and qualifications, starting salary at his department would need to range from $40,000 to $50,000 to get the "cream of the crop."
However, he hedged talk of using higher salaries to lure better-qualified officers in favor of using the same money to keep ones who are already employed at Forest Park.
"It gets to be dicey," he said. "We need to start on the inside rather than go outside."
Lockhart offered it could cost about a half million to make that happen and asked Parker's opinion.
"The only thing I have to say is whatever we spend, we must also bring the money in," said Parker.
Hobbs heads a department of 89 sworn officers, 14 communications employees and 12 administrative positions. He anticipates it will take about $9 million to budget police services during 2013-2014.
The last budget meeting was Thursday at 6 p.m. The proposed budget can be accessed and commented on in writing through the city's website. Public comments on the proposal will be heard June 3.