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Precincts to streamline service, operations, sheriff says
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The largest room in the Hall County Sheriff’s Office new north precinct in downtown Clermont. Renovations are coming, said sheriff’s office spokesman Lt. Stephen Wilbanks. - photo by NAT GURLEY

The future Hall County Sheriff’s Office north precinct is a humble white building at 122 Dean St. in Clermont.

The structure has been empty since August, when Clermont’s town hall packed its things and moved municipal business across the park to the old precinct’s space on King Street.

Although the building is simple, it has the floor space required that, according to Sheriff Gerald Couch, will make it suited for the full-service functions he envisions the precinct will boast.

“To put us out there near the calls for service, it’s just working smart,” Couch said.

Couch made the proposal to the Hall County Board of Commissioners at its Oct. 21 work session. Couch said it was former sheriff and current board Chairman Richard Mecum who made the move to create precincts as a base for patrol when changing shifts.

By staffing the precincts and integrating technology, Couch said the sheriff’s office can make residents’ lives easier, allowing them to do business, such as filing reports, without driving all the way to Gainesville.

“It’s all about streamlining and making things much better for the citizens,” he said.

Lt. Stephen Wilbanks, assistant district commander for patrol, said the strategy makes sense.

“We’re moving toward the precincts to decentralize operations,” Wilbanks said. “For a county as large as Hall, it makes more sense to base things geographically.”

Different parts of the county present unique challenges, Wilbanks said.

“Patrol officers in the northern district may answer fewer calls, but they travel further geographically,” Wilbanks said. “And call volume varies from time to time — there could be days when they answer just as many calls.”

A planned South Hall precinct will have the same aim as the North Hall precinct.

“We’re still working on finalizing a location,” Wilbanks said. He narrowed the possible site to Spout Springs Road.
Ideally, Wilbanks said, the precinct would be able to access the Sheriff’s Office network, making administrative work easier for patrol officers and commanders.

The precinct will also have a community service officer, in the same vein as the CSO Couch established in March at the main headquarters in Gainesville.

“We would like to eventually get to the point where a clerk can pull accident reports and incident reports,” Wilbanks said.

Wilbanks said there are naturally cost limitations to the type of work and operations a precinct can manage. For example, applying for a carry permit requires an expensive fingerprint machine that only the downtown precinct would have (although he noted that requires a trip to Magistrate Court anyway, where the application is submitted).

The Sheriff’s Office is keeping costs down where it can. Renovations are being funded through impact fees, and the office also plans on using inmate labor from the Hall County Corrections Institute.

“There’s an agreement between the town and the county that from a cost standpoint benefits the county and the citizens of Clermont as well,” Wilbanks said.

Clermont residents expressed a positive reaction to having an enhanced precinct in their backyard. A group leaving town hall after casting votes in the council races voiced their approval.

“I think it will be a great help to the town,” longtime Clermont resident Sylvia Gailey said. “To give the sheriff’s office more coverage — we’re all for that.”

“I think (Sheriff) Gerald Couch is doing a good job and this will help us,” she added. “It makes me feel safer.”

Beyond enhancing the customer-service aspect of the Sheriff’s Office for taxpayers, Couch said he hopes that the move will create stronger personal ties between citizens and law enforcement.

“I’m big on community-oriented policing,” he said. “This puts us out there in those communities to hopefully build those ties and relations even more — getting more people involved in our neighborhood watch program. All that is tied in.”

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