Other stories in this special report:
Before the Gainesville Police Department had a chance to lay out the reasons for its desire to have a 0.8-mile stretch of interstate right-of-way in the city limits, Chief Frank Hooper was already on the defensive.
As soon as a request to annex 102.836 acres of the Chicopee Woods Area Parks Commission into the city limits — and the 0.8 mile-stretch of Interstate 985 right-of-way next to it — was made public, Hall County Commissioner Bobby Banks was already accusing Hooper of planning to use the roadway as a speed trap and duplicating services the county Sheriff’s Office already provides.
Banks called a public hearing to have Hooper explain the city’s need to annex the property, and County Planning Director Randy Knighton sent an official objection to both the I-985 annexation and another proposed annexation of McEver Road right-of-way.
The objection letter claimed that the city’s only reason for annexing the two roads’ right-of-ways was to give the city additional patrol jurisdiction.
“County residents residing in Gainesville will be paying for a duplication of services whereby the city police will be patrolling the same stretch of roadway that the sheriff’s department already adequately patrols,” Knighton wrote to city Planning Director Rusty Ligon on March 26. “Thus, county residents residing in the city of Gainesville will be taxed by the city to provide a totally unnecessary service.”
Hooper argues just the opposite. He said without clear geographical boundaries on I-985 and McEver Road, taxpayers are paying for both the county and city to respond to wrecks in those areas when only one agency is needed.
On Interstate 985, for example, the Gainesville city limits end just 0.8 miles short of the Atlanta Highway overpass.
When a wreck occurs on I-985 between Candler Highway and Atlanta Highway and dispatchers are not sure whether a caller is in the city or the county, they send both to the scene. Once on the scene, the two agencies determine who has jurisdiction, Hooper said.
“You’ve just sent half a commitment of folks that you didn’t need to send that could have been available for something else,” Hooper said.
With the annexation of the Chicopee Woods property, both dispatchers and police officers would know that the city department’s jurisdiction ends at the Atlanta Highway overpass, Hooper said.
The Georgia Association of Police Chiefs does not encourage its members to annex property, but it does advise police chiefs to make sure their officers are clear on where their jurisdiction begins and ends, said executive director Frank Rotondo.
“We generally don’t get involved in jurisdictional issues other than to tell the police chiefs that they certainly don’t have authority outside of their jurisdictions,” Rotondo said.
“There are reasons why those lines have to be clear in a good CEO’s eyes,” he said. “It does become a liability issue.”
The city department has asked about annexing other areas as well, and in November, the department annexed a 2.7-mile portion of Interstate 985 right-of-way as well as right-of-way on McEver Road, from Dawsonville Highway to Gould Road, with no objection. In both instances, property on both sides of the road was in the city limits, but the road and its right-of-way were not.
The police department withdrew its most recent request to annex a portion of the right-of-way on McEver Road — a request the county objected to — because city officials decided the road should already be in the city limits.
The police department had originally proposed annexing 0.49 miles of McEver Road right-of-way from the road’s intersection with Donna Way, up to Gould Road. The department also proposed annexing a 0.069-mile portion of Gould Road into the city limits.
An aerial view of the city’s map shows both sides of the two roads in that area are already inside the city limits. The maps show that the roads, however, are in the county.
Planning Director Rusty Ligon said the reason could be a mapping error. Oakwood de-annexed that portion of right-of-way in 1985, and since both sides of the road were in the city limits, the right-of-way should have automatically been included in Gainesville’s city limits when Oakwood de-annexed it, he said.
Ligon points to a state law that states when a city annexes land on both sides of a right-of-way, it should also assume control of the right-of-way.
In a response to the county’s objection to the McEver Road right-of-way annexation, Ligon wrote that the city police department withdrew the annexation request because that section of road should already be included in the city limits.
“Therefore, in an effort to correct the jurisdictional boundary lines and in order to enhance service delivery for this segment of right-of-way, the city of Gainesville is correcting its boundary lines to show these segments of right-of-way (along both McEver Road and Gould Road) are within the city limits of Gainesville,” he wrote.
Hooper insists the annexation requests are to clear up jurisdictional boundaries and not to generate revenue by creating a “speed trap” as Commissioner Banks suggests.
The term “speed trap” is a term Hooper said he does not take lightly.
Legally, a “speed trap” requires an agency to receive more than 40 percent of its revenue from speeding tickets. Revenue from the city department’s speeding citations was $420,490 in 2008 — approximately 4 percent of the department’s 2008 budget, according to a report obtained through an open records request.
“We’re not in the revenue-producing business; we’re in the public safety business,” he said.
There have been sections of Interstate 985 that have been in the city for years, Hooper points out.
Still, in 2008 the department issued a total of six speeding tickets on the interstate, according to numbers obtained in an open records request. All in all, the department issued 48 traffic tickets — from driving without a tag to seat belt violations — on the interstate in 2008, resulting in $3,686 in fine revenue.
“In 2008, I tell you, we really cleaned up on speeding tickets on 985,” Hooper said.
Records also show that the department is issuing fewer speeding tickets throughout the city than it was 12 years ago.
The department issued a total of 2,090 speeding tickets in 2008 and another 14 tickets for speeding in a work zone, according to the documents obtained in an Open Records request.
Hooper said his records show that the department issued more than twice that many tickets in 1997. He said that city police officers issued 5,887 speeding tickets in 1997, despite the fact that the department had about 25 fewer officers then than it does today.
Even the Georgia Association of Police Chiefs recognized Gainesville’s drop in speeding tickets and vehicle crashes.
The association highlighted Gainesville as a law enforcement success story in its 2008 “Traffic Safety Committee White Paper.”
The annual report, put together by the association’s traffic safety committee, lauds the Gainesville department for reducing traffic accidents and injuries associated with those accidents.
The city was one of four throughout the state that the association highlighted in the report.
Being included in the report, “tells me we’re doing a pretty good job,” Hooper said.