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Traffic citations down in Hall County
Economy, budget cuts cited as reasons for drop
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Hall County's traffic violation cases have sharply declined in the last five years, a trend that seems to follow the recent economic downturn.

According to a five-year case summary from the Hall County Traffic Bureau, there has been a drop in traffic violation cases since 2007, falling about 40 percent from 17,012 in 2007 cases to 10,311 in 2011.

Those cases come primarily from the Hall County Sheriff's Office and Georgia State Patrol, but some are also passed on from municipal police departments. They include violations such as speeding and driving without a license; they do not include DUIs.

Though the drop in case volume coincides with economic woes and subsequent government budget cuts, specific reasons for the decline in citations aren't clear.

Court and law enforcement officials say numbers could come into play, including a decrease in population and the effect of law enforcement furloughs.

What's also not clear is whether the numbers indicate safer roads in Hall County during that period.

Reggie Forrester, the court administrator for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, has tracked the numbers and says he's perplexed.

"We know that a lot of things may have some impact on this," he said. "I know the economy has had to something do with everything."

But Forrester throws his hands in the air with the question of how the economy has affected traffic numbers.

Frustrations from increased jobless rates would seem, according to conventional wisdom, to bring more violations, not fewer.

Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks, a spokesman for the Hall County Sheriff's Office, said at least two factors are at play.

One is an increase in call volume in recent years, taking up more of the officers' time.

"Higher call volume means that patrolmen are spending more time responding to calls for service instead of conducting proactive patrols and doing traffic enforcement," he said.

Wilbanks also pointed to mandatory furloughs that began in 2008 because of countywide budget cuts. That led to fewer deputies on duty at some times, he said, creating a "compounding effect."

"Fewer deputies on shift everyday means that the ones who are working have even more calls to handle because the furloughed deputy's patrol district still has to be covered," Wilbanks wrote in an email to The Times.

Since 2008, Hall County Sheriff's traffic citations, those not ending with an arrest, have dropped from 13,097 to 7,634 in 2011.

Georgia State Patrol, the other agency leading in issuing violations through the Hall Traffic Bureau, also started implementing furloughs in 2009 due to state budget cuts.

The Times was unable to acquire similar statistics in time for this story.

During that time, the Gainesville Police Department, which does not report most of it citations to the Hall Traffic Bureau, has fluctuated between 11,000 and 14,000 violations.

Hall County Commissioner Scott Gibbs takes solace in the news of falling traffic citations.

"We are a safer place," he said.

Gibbs and other members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners got a glimpse of those statistics at a budget audit report for fiscal year 2011 at Monday's work session.

The report showed Hall County was "under budget" by $456,000 in fines and forfeitures. Auditor Beth Grimes of Bates, Carter & Co. said most of that money came from a drop in traffic case volume.

No public official has publicly said a drop in fines collected from traffic tickets is a problem for the county. Instead, they say, money should not be a factor when handing out tickets.

"It's definitely not (local law enforcement's) job to raise money," Gibbs said, pointing out revenue for tickets would come close to covering court costs.

Willbanks reiterated that deputies are not encouraged to hand out citations to raise money.

"If a deputy feels that this mission is better served by issuing a warning as opposed to a citation, that is left up to his or her discretion," he said. "Revenue isn't a factor."

In fact, the county's total collected revenues were over budget in 2011. So the lower revenues from fines did not ring any alarm bells for commissioners.

That was thanks in part to an increase in ambulance fees, which ran about $933,000 over budget.

Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said that increase was due in part to increased implemented rates for ambulance service, but also increase in "billable" ambulance calls.