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The State of Ben Hill County: 2014

The commission began 2013 facing the difficult demands of our $914,459 reduction in the county’s budget; an unprecedented cut proportionally spread across county offices and departments according to the size of their annual funding. (The only exception was the volunteer fire department whose budget we eventually increased by $10,000.) This cut required laying departmental employees off for up to 3 weeks for the first time as well as voluntary contributions by most salaried staff. Raising the millage rate in 2012 by one mill ($377,000) continued to be a key factor in returning the county’s finances to a sound basis as was significantly increased revenues in 2013.

The budgeting process required to accomplish this recovery was difficult but equitable as it necessitated equal sacrifices across the board. It meant calling additional meetings each month devoted specifically to the budget. Constitutional officers and department heads participated in these meetings to argue for amendments where they believed critical needs were identified but not anticipated in the budget.

Accordingly the commission amended its original budget by $191,324. This reduced the initial savings but assured the capacity of offices and departments to continue providing essential services to the citizens of Ben Hill County.

Without the dedication and capabilities of County Manager Frank Feild and County Clerk Donna Prather this extraordinary progress would not have been possible. Working with officers and department heads, they managed the budget with a commitment to efficiency and fairness that balanced the commission’s responsibility to taxpayers as well as the county’s workforce. This permitted us to reward everyone working for the county with a bonus (as opposed to a raise) of a little more than 2% in December; their first increase since 2007.

For 2014 the commission decided to hold the budget at the 2013 level with the same amendment process in place. Given the continuing economic challenges at the local, state and national level, we didn’t feel we could lower the bar for either employees or taxpayers.

To truly understand the state of a county’s government, one needs to appreciate why meetings may be occasionally described as contentious. Constitutional officers, department heads and employees feel passionately about the services they provide and rightly so. Citizens who depend on these services can be equally adamant and vocal. Add taxpayers questioning the efficacy of government in general and five commissioners with differing views and the circumstances are what I prefer to call “vigorously democratic”.

A little history is helpful too: the idea of counties goes back to 7th century England when kings marked off areas called “shires” they awarded to favored “counts”. A local official known as “shirereeve” or “sheriff” was responsible for the administration of these “counties”.

This tradition continued with James Oglethorpe’s founding of Georgia in 1733. Over the years the constitutional offices we now recognize as the Probate Court, Clerk of the Superior Court, and Tax Commission were added to that of the Sheriff. Each of these offices predates the first county commission.

Historically framers of the state’s constitutions and constitutional officers have gone to great lengths to protect their autonomy. For example, the framers purposefully used the election of constitutional officers to limit the concentration of executive authority at the county level. Constitutional officers’ employees are not county employees but employees of the office they serve.

This history assigns county commissioners very little recourse against constitutional officers who choose not to cooperate with commission decisions. As the county’s governing authority, commissions are empowered to set annual budgets for constitutional officers but not to dictate how they spend these funds.

Typically Georgia’s constitutional offices follow the direction of county commissions. This is true for Ben Hill County’s Probate Court, Clerk of the Superior Court and Tax Commission as well as the Sheriff though, in his case, there are exceptions.

The commission set the Sheriff’s 2013 budget at $3,064,966 (30% of the total anticipated to be put in the county’s coffers by taxpayers). $1,309,078 of this was dedicated to law enforcement. The rest went to the jail, 911 and school officers. Over the year $108,315 (57% of all amendments) was added to the Sheriff’s budgets in amendments he requested.

Expenditures by a sheriff reflect his priorities, not necessarily those of the commission. He is free to adjust line items within his budget to pay for unexpected developments or emergencies.

If the Sheriff wishes to subject his office to increased public and commission scrutiny, exceeding his budget is an option within his authority as well. This choice was in evidence in 2010 and 2011 by a total of $382,630.

Unless the commission appeals his decisions to the Superior Court, we are obligated to pay any debt a sheriff accumulates; in effect, taxing the resources of other offices, departments or ultimately taxpayers.

To avoid the unpredictable cost of litigation, the commission seeks more deliberative solutions. For example, when I became chairman I realized early on that I shouldn’t be influencing decisions related to 1st responder equipment. With this in mind, I asked the commission to revive a dormant board of 1st responders known as the 911 Committee.

This committee includes county and city law enforcement, city and county fire departments, city and county road departments, EMTs and the local emergency manager. This membership elected the Sheriff chairman at its first meeting, a position he held until January of this year.

The 911 Committee is responsible for alerting city and county governments to concerns related to emergencies anywhere in Ben Hill County. In addition to insuring regular dialogue between groups whose lives depend on one another, it effectively takes politics out of decisions best left to professionals.

The recent problem the Sheriff associated with the city’s purchase of digital radios is a prime example of an issue that should have been anticipated by the 911 Committee so it could have been dealt with proactively.

The absence of any action by the 911 Committee put the commission in a difficult position; namely, how to replace yet another piece of the 1st responder communication puzzle without risking further complications.

To enable us to make an informed decision, the commission acted on the advice of County Manager Fields by reaching out to nationally acknowledged experts in emergency communications to choose one recommended by Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency (GEMA). We tasked him with pairing his expertise with the Sheriff’s and each 1st responder on the 911 Committee as well as those of neighboring counties to arrive at a comprehensive solution. This study will be completed by the end of February.

This decision was recently greeted by the Sheriff’s invitation to twentyfive deputies to show up, armed and in uniform, at the commission’s January meeting convinced the commission is sending them into harm’s way ill prepared for the dangers that they routinely face.

Intent on not making a kneejerk decision but also keenly aware that the safety and protection these dedicated men and women provide 24/7/365 include ourselves and our families as well as the citizens we represent, commissioners accepted their letters and listened carefully to their concerns.

References to potential loss of life and limb, officers having to notify and console bereaved widows and widowers, personal and county liability to suits were expressed in their comments and correspondence. Accusing the commission of “deliberate indifference” to their needs in his own letter, the Sheriff concluded by asking for a $50,000 increase to his $3,173,281 budget for 2014.

As a Marine who spent 13 months in Vietnam, I have vivid memories of how it felt to be inadequately equipped in combat situations. Having deputies express such thoughts was gut wrenching. This feeling was multiplied many times over for former Lt. Col. Feild who spent decades under fire in Vietnam, Korea and Iraq as a Special Forces officer.

Similarly each commissioner cares deeply about making sure deputies have everything they need to do their jobs in situations we all recognize as dangerous. Believing there is a better way of understanding what’s needed, by whom, when and where doesn’t lessen these feelings.

In fact there is a better way: The 911 Committee. The Sheriff chose not to adjust his budgetary priorities nor convene the committee to address the radio problem.

This put the commission, at risk of appearing callous to deputies in the short run, in the position of having to do what the 911 committee should have done when this problem first surfaced: Enable local governments to make professionally informed decisions that provide and sustain working lifelines between all 1st responders.

The commission believes there are times when a deputy may need an EMT more than another deputy or a policeman; other times when they each may need the road superintendents’ heavy equipment to get to victims or criminals; they both will need firemen to quell a blaze set by an arsonist. In other words, we believe we all need each other.

These beliefs were the basis for the study and ultimately our support for deputies. It will help us make better decisions in the future. It will help the 911 Committee to become an effective voice; absent politics and grandstanding gestures that divide rather than unify 1st responders, offices, departments and the public.

I ended my 2013 state of the county address with a promise that the commission would do better. We fulfilled this promise.

Likewise today I am confident that the radio issue will be resolved in a way that will be recognized as the Sheriff working with everyone concerned. For now it candidly illustrates what it sometimes takes to keep Ben Hill County on the sound footing on which we find ourselves in 2014.

To understand and appreciate the much larger picture, I encourage you to read County Manager Feild’s review of the progress we’ve made in each office and department.

Respectfully submitted,

Philip C. Jay, III
Chairman, Ben Hill County Commission