HOSCHTON — The Hoschton Police Department remains at the epicenter of Hoschton’s ongoing debate over its finances.
During a called City Council meeting on Nov. 14, newly appointed councilman Scott Butler said he personally believed Hoschton’s current proposed 2010 budget will result in an $119,000 deficit next year.
A majority of the hour-long meeting focused on the police department, which has the largest budget of any city department. As of Nov. 2, the department’s proposed 2010 budget is $258,825.
At one point, Butler asked if dissolving the police department and seeking coverage from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office was a possibility.
The question resulted in a heated discussion and disagreement between some residents and council members over costs associated with the city’s police department and Hoschton and Jackson County’s respective response times.
Hoschton has not said it is going to discontinue its police department, but at several previous council and committee meetings, similar discussions have occurred.
Each time, councilman Richard Shepherd has maintained that enlisting the county’s help would be the more expensive option.
During the city’s 2009 budget process, Shepherd said he and other city officials met with Jackson County Sheriff Stan Evans to discuss whether turning over public safety duties to the county would be cheaper.
“For them to provide the same level of coverage as we have today, it would cost us more,” he said during the Nov. 14 meeting.
The cost to the city if Jackson County served as Hoschton’s primary law enforcement agency would depend on the “degree of presence” the city wanted, according to Evans.
“That would take some in-depth study, and then, of course, it would be to what degree do they want to enhance their service, and that would largely determine what the cost would be,” he said.
Evans said Jackson County does aid city police departments with answering calls if they are unable to have officers on patrol at all times. In the past, he said the county has aided Hoschton as well as Arcade and Pendergrass.
In these instances, the sheriff’s office answers calls, responds to wrecks and provides other services at no cost to a city.
Hoschton does not currently pay the sheriff’s office for any of these provided services, according to Mayor Bill Copenhaver.
“We’re obligated to provide the services the best we can to whoever, whether they’re incorporated or unincorporated Jackson County,” Evans said. “They’re all in Jackson County, and we’re here to serve the taxpayers of Jackson County.”
The only additional cost, he said, would be if a city entered into a contract with the county to provide services beyond what is currently offered to them.
Examples include if a municipality wanted an officer to remain in the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week or patrol certain areas of the city at particular times.
“If that’s the route they choose to go, we would try to cooperate and do that, but again, there’s no extra charge for our services at this point,” he said.
Evans said he didn’t have a specific dollar value for these extra services. However, he also said that at some point in the “past couple of years” he did meet with Hoschton officials to discuss monetary figures, but couldn’t remember what those figures were.
Response times for both Hoschton and Jackson County were also discussed at the meeting, with estimated times ranging from 90 seconds for Hoschton to between 40 and 45 minutes for Jackson County.
Officially, Hoschton Police Chief Jeremy Howell said his department’s average response time is usually less than four minutes, and Evans said the county’s average response time is 8.4 minutes. However, these times are also indicative of the type of call a department receives.
“You know if it’s something we need to get there pdq, then we naturally speed it up,” Evans said. “If it’s something, you know, damage to a mailbox or something like that, then we’ll prioritize that call and catch it as we can.”
Cost and response times aside, Howell said the choice of having county or city-based coverage boils down to the “quality of life” residents want.
“We have a local knowledge of what’s going on in the area,” he said. “Not to say the sheriff’s office can’t, but we’ve been here, we have that local knowledge of the area.”