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Funding the police: A closer look at local law enforcement budgets
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Gainesville Police Officer Benjamin Ametohoun checks an in-car computer Friday, July 9, 2021, during his shift on patrol. - photo by SCOTT ROGER

A year since 2020’s summer of protest, the Gainesville Police Department and Hall County Sheriff’s Office will have bigger budgets, mostly due to salary increases.

Fiscal year 2022 started July 1 and budgets were approved by the Gainesville City Council and Hall County Board of Commissioners last month.

Hall County Sheriff’s Office

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office’s budget is $46,410,886, which is a 6.6% increase from last year. The increase comes largely from a 5% cost-of-living adjustment for county employees. The office has a total of 336 sworn personnel including jailers and deputies. 

Funding for the sheriff’s office is about 41% of the county’s general fund budget. 

Other increases include $190,000 for new body cameras and tasers for all jail officers and school resource officers, Sheriff Gerald Couch said, as well as $60,000 for building maintenance, $150,000 to replace old laptops and $100,000 for software maintenance. 

The office will add a major to oversee only the jail, which has more employees than all the local police departments combined, Couch said. Now, one major oversees the jail and court system. A captain also will be promoted to a major position to oversee patrol and investigation operations, Couch said. The new position will cost about $140,000.

Only vehicle replacement saw a decrease in funding, Couch said. Typically, about $900,000 is needed to maintain the fleet, he said, but this year the budget was cut to $586,000. This money is used to replace 20-25 vehicles per year, Couch said, and he is working with county administration to address this item. 

“We’ve currently got the best fleet we’ve ever had,” Couch said. “And I want to maintain that and keep it that way. I certainly don’t want to go backwards.”

He tries to keep the budget flat year to year, Couch said, but he will advocate for more funding toward officer salaries and benefits in order to better retain and hire officers. 

Couch, who has worked 40 years in law enforcement come October added that it’s “always been in a state of reformation every single year.”

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Gainesville Police Officer Justin Seabolt checks body camera footage Friday, July 9, 2021, from an earlier shift. - photo by SCOTT ROGER
Gainesville Police Department

The Gainesville Police Department also gained salary increases due to a citywide cost-of-living adjustment of 4%. Its total budget is $10,723,984, which is about a 6.6% increase from last year. Other than the cost-of-living adjustment, there are few new programs or items for the fiscal year 2022 budget, Chief Jay Parrish wrote in a statement. 

“As far as the funded areas of our budget, there is not new or area of change from previous years,” Parrish wrote. “We have allocated more money for the ongoing maintenance and support of body-worn cameras. We believe this is an important resource both for the officer and the public.”

The cost of the body cameras is about $164,000, Parrish wrote. This covers additional Axon Fleet car cameras, body cameras for detectives and video storage.  

Gainesville police also have a new avenue for funding that the City Council set up for this budget. The city established a Police Services Fund, similar in operation to the Fire Services Fund or Parks and Recreation Fund, which creates a new tax district for the entire city. The millage rate for this fund is 0.5 mills, where 1 mill is an annual property tax equal to $1 per $1,000 in assessed property value. 

The funding for this police district must go to Gainesville Police Department’s patrol unit, which has 49 officers, City Manager Bryan Lackey said. The city helped to offset the cost of the new millage rate with a 1 mill tax credit for all residents this year, but this Police Services Fund millage rate can be adjusted in future years. About 41% of the department’s money is still coming from the city’s general fund, and money from the new Police Services Fund is solely for patrol.

“We wanted to demonstrate to our community and our public safety staff our commitment to fully funding public safety services in the City of Gainesville,” Lackey wrote in a statement. “Establishing these services districts helps remove the ‘competition’ within the General Fund Budget where other Departments and services are funded as well.”

The city’s general fund budget is $30.9 million for FY2022.

There is no plan to decrease funding based on protests, Parrish wrote. 

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Funding for mental health services

Both departments plan to increase attention toward mental health services including increased training and obtaining funds to keep a mental health clinician on staff. Gainesville has had a mental health clinician on staff since 2020, after it received $55,000 in grant funding from the North Georgia Community Foundation.

“We have increased our efforts over the last two years (prior to any protest) to address and fund mental health and social services,” Parrish wrote. “We have increased our training hours for sworn officers to teach both how to identify and respond to mental health issues, as well as be aware of and address our own mental health concerns.”

The department plans to continue this program with funds from the 2021 NGHS Medical Center Open golf tournament in October. 

The clinician hired three interns throughout the last year from Brenau University for support, Parrish wrote. 

Sheriff Couch said mental health training and support has been a focus for his department as well. The office is in the developing stages of creating a full-time in-house mental health professional position at the jail to provide assistance with inmates, Couch said.

“This will take some time, but it should be a benefit to everyone,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are limited options for those who commit crimes and have mental health issues, but we certainly want to address those.”

The office is also working to have more deputies attend Crisis Intervention Training, a 40-hour course put on by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, Couch said, though effects of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented some of this training last year.

“It’s a collaboration between (officers) and mental health professionals … to make sure people with mental illnesses and other brain disorders receive treatment in lieu of incarceration in most cases,” he said.

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Newtown Florist Club executive director Rose Johnson leads a crowd gathered Monday, June 1, 2020, in song as hundreds gather in Gainesville in reaction to the death of George Floyd and the issues of police brutality and systemic racism. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Rev. Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, a nonprofit and social justice advocacy group in Gainesville, said she would like to see line items for community outreach programs.

“Our goal is for the city and the county to have an outstanding community policing program,” Johnson said. “When we talk about community policing, for us, it’s about how significant the relationships are between law enforcement and the people in communities that they are sworn to serve.”

Couch said funding for these efforts is hard to come by. Often, the office has to rely upon asset forfeiture money, he said. “That part of the budget is extremely limited, and it’s rarely budgeted for,” Couch said.

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