When Gerald Couch became Hall County’s sheriff a year ago, he knew he faced the challenge of a budget barely out of the grips of austerity.
“When I came into office, I applied a test to all areas of the agency, and that was three-pronged: How can you improve efficiency, how you can promote cost savings and how can you improve services? We applied those to every area of the department, every position,” he said. “Looking at all areas of the department, we saw that we could save money in several areas, and the reason why we needed to save that money was to help contribute to the economic recovery of this county.”
One year later, the result has been the consolidation of several offices and functions — from the work release program’s relocating to the jail to the storage of archive files from a private company to space at the office.
“We came up with a deficit again this last budget cycle, so we had to make some further cuts in order to be able to not go back into the area where we were having furloughs, loss of retirement, things of that nature,” he said. “I think by next budget cycle we’ll be in much better shape — better shape than we are now.”
As sheriff, Couch has also sought to enhance the “customer service” aspect of the office, leading to expansion in some areas. A front desk community resource officer and clerk have served the office since March, and two full-service precincts are in the works for North and South Hall.
“Those are huge changes in the way that we operate,” Couch said of the precincts. A North Hall location has been identified in Clermont, and the office is still working to secure a South Hall precinct facility.
It gives the sheriff’s office more of a “small-town feel,” he said, although it is based on a concept that counties have implemented as they’ve grown.
“It’s like Gwinnett County, for example. They’ve grown to the point now where for many years they’ve had precincts,” he said. “It’s just better allocation of manpower where you need it the most.”
Couch asked the Hall County Board of Commissioners for funds to meet the office’s patrol car needs, a purchase that has gotten good feedback, he said.
“A lot of people are complimentary of the cars — the way they look, the improved gas mileage they get, and the refurbished ones as well,” Couch said.
Commission Chairman Richard Mecum, himself a former Hall sheriff, counted himself as an enthusiast for the cars.
“I think he’s done an excellent job; he’s done well with the cars,” Mecum said. “Many were getting up over 200,000 miles, and the liability on that is huge.”
Couch has been efficient with taxpayer funds, as well as innovative, Mecum said.
“We gave him money for six cars, and he finagled that and got 10,” he said. “I think the idea of refurbishing is also a good one. I think he’s been creative and really done an excellent job in coming up with ideas to save money.”
Cars will remain a priority until the fleet is “up to standards,” Couch said, citing many vehicles still boast 150,000-plus miles.
Mecum said Couch has also done a good job tightening the office’s belt on overtime expense, traditionally a budget burden.
“That’s something that’s certainly admirable — there’s a tendency to run over with overtime,” he said.
Couch said being able to call the sheriff’s office home has helped foster a good start.
“Just the fact that I knew this department so well — that I have been here since I was 19 years old. I actually literally grew up in this agency. So I knew everything about it,” he said. “I knew what we need, what we don’t need, what works, what doesn’t work.”
But beyond knowing the mechanisms of the agency, the people make the most difference, he said.
“I also know the people here, and that’s of extreme importance — being able to know who you work with,” he said. “If you’re going to have success, they have to believe in you.”
Couch said he has both short-range and long-range goals looking toward next year.
“Long-range (goal) would be a records management system. And the reason it’s long range is because of the cost,” he said. “It would be monumental to change the way our records system — our computer record data — is stored. That’s one huge area that we’re going to need to address at some point very soon.”
The agency’s Criminal Justice Information Standards system is old by today’s standards, Couch said.
“We have electronic records, but it’s so antiquated. Our CJIS system has been around since 1989, I believe it was,” he said. “And of course there’s been a lot of changes in computer technology, and we need to get caught up with that.”
The system is crucial in every step of the criminal court process, with each case assigned a number from dispatch, he said.
“There are some major glitches in that system, a lot of redundancy we need to streamline and just get a better program,” he said. “It’s very costly — I may be working on that for quite some time.”
Another goal is a fitness program, originally intended for earlier implementation.
“I was hoping to have had that already implemented this year, but we’ve had so many other challenges this year that it will be implemented first of next year,” he said.
The sheriff’s office has developed a policy on the program, outlining the entire program and its expectations — the course of exercises officers will go through and various stages — and secured two fitness instructors, Couch said.
Beyond the work that keeps a sheriff busy, he said, outreach with the local community occupies a great deal of time.
“I’m pulled in many directions,” he said. “I enjoy getting out and meeting people, but at the same time it is hard to balance that and still get the down time.”
“I’m still working on that,” he added with a laugh.