Officials say move will save money and strengthen law enforcement for town and county
By RUSSELL TURNER
The Town of Leakesville is proposing to shut down its police department and partner with the Greene County Board of Supervisors in a move town officials believe will provide better police protection and better use of taxpayer dollars for residents in town and across the county.
Town officials have presented supervisors with a draft proposal they say, if approved, could redirect over $200,000 annually to expand other municipal services while simultaneously providing much-needed resources to Greene County Sheriff Stanley McLeod’s office to cover the town and upgrade police protection and law enforcement elsewhere in the county.
Mayor George Perkins and Town Clerk Rex Garretson say the move is one that has been discussed for years as town officials looked for ways to address the growing cost of operating its own police force and municipal court system. They say auditors and their accounting and financial consultants have pushed for an agreement with the county for many years, arguing that the cost of continuing to operate a separate town police force and court system is unsustainable and redundant to county services. They added that despite the coincidence in timing, the proposed move has nothing to do with the calls for defunding police departments being debated in other parts of the country.
“I understand that the timing could not be worse in regard to some of the discussions and protests that are going on around the county at this time,” Mayor Perkins said. “But, our decision is not related to those issues.”
“We’ve been grappling with the issue of the costs of our police department for some time and we believe this is an opportunity to save some money that we can use in other important areas, while at the same time actually improving police protections for town residents and those in other parts of the county. We see it as a win-win.”
Perkins and Garretson say the sheriff is mandated by law to provide law enforcement throughout the county, but having an in-house police force is an option for municipalities such as the Town of Leakesville. They say with that in mind the town could opt to shut down the police department without an agreement with the county and the sheriff would have to pick up the slack within the town limits anyway.
“We could just walk away from this and the sheriff would have to provide police protection in the town,” Perkins said. “But, we don’t want to do things that way. We would rather work with the sheriff to come up with a plan that is good for both sides and we truly believe this is an opportunity to address budget constraints on both sides and end up with better police protection across the board.”
Garretson said the town is currently spending around $330,000 annually to fund the police department and the municipal court system. At roughly $225,000 per year for salaries, equipment costs, training and other expenses, the police department takes up the lion’s share of the overall amount spent on public safety in Leakesville. Garretson said if supervisors accept the proposal, town officials would look to redirect the savings toward street maintenance in the town, parks and recreational programs and other areas of need, such as beefing up fire protection and economic development efforts.
Perkins said these types of arrangements are being made in a lot of communities around the state and across the country, and from what he can tell, it seems to be working well in those communities.
“Officials in those towns are doing their jobs of trying to be good custodians of their finances,” Garretson said. “And, if you are spending too much money in one area, then you need to find a better way of handling that, because like the mayor said, you have needs with infrastructure, parks and recreation and other amenities and services that have to be addressed.”
“We’ve had CPA’s and auditors advise us on this, we’ve gotten attorney generals’ opinions and had multiple mayors look into this. We’ve done our homework on this and believe this is the right thing to do and the right time.”
In its proposal to the county, the town is offering to pay $122,500 annually to the county for the sheriff to use for providing police protection and services inside the town limits and to also transfer ownership of its police cars and other police department equipment to the sheriff for that effort. In return, the sheriff would act as the chief law enforcement officer on behalf of the town and agree to provide regular patrols within the town and enforce local and state laws and town ordinances.
“More specifically, the sheriff’s department will ensure 24-hour random patrols throughout the entire town, and shall at a minimum conduct three random patrols on town streets between the hours of 12 a.m. and 6 a.m., and will provide dispatch and other log records on a quarterly basis to verify said patrols,” the proposed agreement states. “Likewise, an officer will remain on duty on the premises at the sheriff’s department from 12 a.m. until 6 a.m. to ensure protection for the Town of Leakesville and to conduct the above referenced random patrols.”
“The county, acting through its sheriff’s department, shall provide investigative services as necessary to prepare misdemeanor ordinance violation cases for court presentation as such violations or possible violations may occur within the corporate limits of the town.”
The sheriff’s office already serves as the town’s emergency dispatch and houses town suspects and prisoners in the county jail and would continue to provide those services under the proposed agreement.
The proposal states that, except for misdemeanor charges or violations, or allegations related to the town’s ordinances, all matters related to violations charged by the sheriff’s department would be heard in Greene County Justice Court or another appropriate county court. The town would maintain its municipal court for the purpose of enforcing ordinance violations.
When asked about how opponents to the town’s recent expansion efforts might react to this news, Perkins said he understands that some may suggest the town is backing away from assurances made during the annexation process. But, Perkins argues that simply isn’t the case.
“This is the method we choose and that we think is best for providing police coverage for all our residents, including those in the newly-annexed areas,” Mayor Perkins said. “We will have more officers available at a more affordable cost.”
“Part of our (proposed) agreement is for the sheriff to provide regular, random patrols inside the town limits as part of a third shift, which is something those residents were not getting previously,” Garretson added. “Plus, they will be getting the full force of the narcotics division and other services of the sheriff’s office.”
“We don’t want to just drop this in the sheriff’s lap because we did make a promise (as part of annexation) and we want to use this money to fulfill that promise.”
County supervisors have received the proposal from the town and are expected to take up the matter in an upcoming meeting. The Herald did not reach out to any of the county supervisors for comment, but will cover their deliberations at their public meetings. The Herald did contact Sheriff McLeod concerning the matter. McLeod said he does not want to see the town shut down the police department without a plan in place for filling the void such a move would create.
“We worked on a proposal that I believe is to both of our satisfactions at this point,” McLeod said. “I think the town officials are acting in good faith and I believe the supervisors will do the same thing and hopefully we will come up with an agreement that is good for all our citizens.”