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Hoschton police department handcuffed by budget woes
Towns force must enforce law with less, even as crime rates rise
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HOSCHTON — With the economy deteriorating, many municipalities are relying on reserve funds to help weather the downturn. This wasn’t an option for Hoschton, however, as the city did not have any reserves to use at the end of 2008.

When the council slashed its 2009 general and water and sewer budgets to deal with decreasing revenues, one area hit hard by the cuts was the Hoschton Police Department. The department ended up with a $352,010 public safety budget, a $96,653 decrease from 2008.

Now the department is trying to maintain a manageable level of service for Hoschton residents, but with a smaller budget and staff, the task ahead will be challenging.

"You’ve got a Wal-Mart budget and you’re trying to run a Gwinnett County Police Department," said Police Chief David Hill. "It’s not going to happen."

In November, two full-time officers left Hoschton for other jobs, although one still works as a part-time officer. Both positions remain vacant due to the city’s budget problems. But now the five-man staff may lose two more officers to other jobs.

If vacated, Hill said he will try to fill both of these positions. But even with five officers, some public safety services will suffer.

The department will have to prioritize what calls officers respond to and what crimes are investigated first. Person-on-person crimes will rank above all other cases, Hill said. In addition, investigations may take as much as "two to three times" longer to close.

But with the economy in shambles and the area’s recent growth, vehicle accidents and domestic, financial and drug-related crimes are on the rise, according to Hill.

The department’s 2008 call statistics revealed that the department received 7,617 calls for service in 2008. Hill said when he joined the department nine years ago, that number was between 1,500 and 2,000.

"It’s a frustrating time when everything’s so difficult with budgets and finances, but criminal activity is increasing ... (and) your public safety is decreasing," he said.

In fact, the Hoschton Police Department, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently served 16 drug arrests in the city’s West Jefferson street area. The arrests were part of Operation Clean Sweep, which the police department started in January 2008.

"Looking at our crime stats, we noticed that there was an increase in drug crimes and violent crimes in the city in this certain quadrant (West Jefferson, Bell, Walnut and White streets)," said Hill. "We’d had a lot of citizen complaints as well about some of the activities there that we wanted to focus on."

Both Hill and Capt. Jeremy Howell set goals at the start of 2008 to improve the "quality of life" in the area, whether it involved curtailing criminal activities or cleaning up "junk vehicles and unsafe structures."

The ongoing investigation involved a five- to six-month undercover operation that eventually led to arrests and seizures of methamphetamine, marijuana and Ecstasy, among other drugs.

Howell said utilizing the "heart and mind" of residents in the area through communication about problems was helpful in the case. He added that the Drug Enforcement Administration and Jackson County Sheriff’s Department both lent Hoschton surveillance equipment to help with the case.

But with budget cuts, any future Operation Clean Sweeps may be put on the back burner for a while, according to Hill. "We had a plan to go and work on a couple other area projects, but we just can’t," he said.

To save money, the department has curtailed its spending and buys only if necessary. For example, it has delayed the purchase of a patrol car it was budgeted to receive this year.

"If we can go without something, whether it be equipment or vehicles, that can still allow us to safely operate, we’re going to do that," Hill said. "When I put my foot down is when it jeopardizes officers’ safety or the safety of the people that live in Hoschton. I’m not going to sacrifice safety for finances."

The department is also saving money by reducing its holiday overtime. Officers now have holidays off and Jackson County assists the city with general calls on those days.

Despite having a smaller staff and budget this year, Hill said his goal remains the same.

"We must maintain the security level for our citizens," he said. "If we are able to complete that goal, I would think we’ve accomplished a great deal at the end of 2009."