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Personalities clash at County meeting

By MICHAEL MURRAY
michael.murray@americustimesrecorder.com
www.americustimesrecorder.com

AMERICUS — The Sumter County Board of Commissioners held their monthly work session on Oct. 13, followed by the monthly regular meeting on Oct. 20.
At the Oct. 13 work session, the board discussed approval of the closing statement and owner’s affidavit for the former National Guard Armory building. County administrator, Bill Twomey, informed the board that the state has recently divested itself of the armory and that the bonded debt on the property, totaling 11 acres, is only $6,033.72. Twomey went on to say that SPLOST funds can be used for this purchase because it is classified as an emergency facility, saying, “It looks like a wonderful transaction to me.”
The board later moved on to a discussion of the purchase of an unauthorized vehicle by the sheriff’s office.
Twomey brought the board up to date on the situation, reminding the board that a purchase order had not been issued for the vehicle.
He then detailed the options available to the board to purchase of the car, saying that he and Sumter County Sheriff Pete Smith had asked the car dealer if it may be possible to retroactively lease or rent the car for the time that it has been in use so that it could be legally purchased in the current budget year, and that the dealer had refused the offer.
Twomey said that he then contacted the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, who stated that it may be possible to lease the automobile through the association on a three- to five-year plan.
County financial director, Janis Jarvis, informed the board that, after speaking with the county’s auditors, it had been determined that there were three routes to a legal purchase of the automobile.
The first is to adopt an amendment to the previous year’s budget and pay for the car out of last year’s contingency fund.
The second is to pay for the vehicle out of the sheriff’s current budget and the third was to pay for the vehicle using SPLOST funds and restrict the department to only four new cars in the next purchasing cycle, instead of the previously agreed-upon five cars.
Jarvis recommended the third option, as that one would have the smallest effect on the general fund. Twomey advised the board that the funds could be temporarily borrowed from another department and replenished at a later date if current SPLOST funds were insufficient to cover the cost of the vehicle. He also advised the board  that, since a title was never legally issued for the automobile, it could be legally purchased with funds from this year’s budget.
After members of the board expressed concerns that, without an amendment to the next year’s SPLOST expenditures, the sheriff would receive an extra automobile in addition to what was previously agreed upon, they decided to adopt the third option, pending an amendment stating that the cost of the car will be offset by restricting the next year’s vehicle purchases to four cars instead of five.
The board made a resolution condemning the sheriff’s purchase of the unauthorized vehicle before moving on.
Other items on the agenda for the work session including the following.
• Approval of a request from Koinonia Farm to install a pair of RV hookups on a portion of the farm to accommodate visitors.
• The board heard from the board chair of Sumter County Family Connection and the organization’s coordinator, who updated the commission on the organization’s progress.
• Charles Proctor of Gold Star EMS addressed the board, requesting an extension on the company’s lease on a facility rented from the county so that the organization can build a new facility.
• The board approved contract documents outlining improvements to be made to the Jimmy Carter Regional Airport using grant funds that were discussed at a previous meeting.
• The board discussed the start-up contribution to the Land Bank Authority in the amount of $5,000. It was stated that the City of Americus had previously agreed to split the cost and that the money would be used for reasonable expenses of the authority, including attorney fees and demolition fees.
• John Ekaitis, chief of Sumter County Fire and Rescue, requested approval of a sole-source bid for the repair of a fire engine. The request was granted.
• The board adopted proposed changes to the Sumter County Defined Benefit Plan.
• The board approved a depository account at Citizens Bank of Americus for the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention and Treatment Program grant.
The following week, the board convened again for the monthly regular meeting.
Sumter County citizen, Paul Johnson, began the meeting by addressing the board on the subject of sheriff’s department employees’ wages.
“Now, we have Wal-Mart and McDonald’s employees … unskilled, untrained workers starting off at between 10 and 12 dollars an hour, and our law enforcement officials who are trained … are making less money than that. It’s just not right,” he said.
He also pointed out that the date of the meeting falls during “Law Enforcement Appreciation Week.”
“We have money in the budget that, I feel like, is being spent unnecessarily … ” he continued. “I know what you’ll say is that [the money is going towards a purchase] that’s going to save a life. Well, it might … But so might these law enforcement officials.”
He the board to try and find a way to hire another officer for the Sheriff’s Office or to raise the officers’ wages, which he believes will encourage them to remain with the office.
Board chair, Randy Howard, thanked Johnson for his comments on behalf of law enforcement and assured him that the board is doing what they can to make the needed adjustments.
The board heard from Leslie resident, Jacob Battle, who complained that the Sumter County Public Works Department (SCPWD) had not been maintaining Wilson-Battle Road to his expectations.
“I’m standing here, trying to get justice,” he said.
Battle claims that the SCPWD had ceased maintenance of the road, and that the board is making excuses to try and avoid maintaining the road.
Battle addressed SCPWD director, Frank Whitaker, saying, “ I want to know, do you plan on going all the way to where the road originally ended?”
“We’re going as far as we can go,” Whitaker responded. “If we see the need to go all the way to the end, we will. There are no washes or ruts. .. We had to pull off today because we had a collapsed pipe that we had to replace, but we came back and we’ll be back tomorrow.”
Battle remarked that the decision is at Whitaker’s discretion whether or not the entire length of the road is in need of repair.
“I don’t want to spend county money if it’s (the road) not being used … ” Whitaker responded. He said he had been monitoring the road monthly and had not seen much sign of use. He added that to continuously scrape the road would cause erosion that could render the road unusable.
Battle and Whitaker went back and forth for a while, with Battle insisting, “It seems like the county has just decided to discontinue the road,” and Whitaker providing information on how the road has been continually maintained, stating that he has, personally, worked on the road recently.
Battle continued to insist that the portion of the road in question has, historically, been maintained by the county. Eventually, Battle asked Whitaker if he would continue to maintain the road, “on to where it’s supposed to stop, originally.”
“We will continue to maintain the road,” Whitaker said.
Battle that he was unable to use the road, to which Whitaker replied that maintenance had been provided that afternoon.
“You ain’t put no clay down there,” Battle stated, and Whitaker told him that the clay was already scheduled to be added to the road the next day.
Battle also addressed the board about what he described as hazardous driving conditions on Brady Road. He said the road is dangerous because of the lack of painted lines to mark the lanes.
Howard asked Whitaker if Brady Road was on the list of roads that have been contracted for painting and Whitaker confirmed. Whitaker informed Battle that the contract could take as long as six months to be completed and that the contract was accepted four months ago.
Battle remarked on Johnson’s statements from the beginning of the meeting, agreeing that law enforcement officers in the county should be paid a higher wage, stating, “We in Sumter County will put a man or a woman life on the line and give them $11,000 a year.”
Commissioner Mark Waddell asked a representative of the sheriff’s office what the introductory rate of pay is for a sheriff’s employee, to which she replied, “The start-off is over $24,000.” Battle then asked Sheriff Pete Smith, who was in attendance, what the starting salary is and Smith responded, “We start off at $10.87 [per hour], which works out to about 24 [thousand dollars per year].”
Battle repeated the amount and Smith added, “About a third of that is [taken out for] taxes, so you figure they take home about 16 [thousand dollars].
“That’s shameful,” Battle replied.
Battle stated that most sheriff’s employees have to get two jobs to make ends meet, but did not cite any specific examples, before talking about how the Americus Police Department (APD) had recently raised wages for its  officers.
Battle went on to say that Sumter County has a high rate of drug problems and that the current law enforcement staff is not sufficient to curb the issues.
Battle claimed that the majority of arrests that the APD has made this year have centered around drugs and claimed that the county needs a drug squad. He went on to say that, since Sumter County does not have a drug squad, people have moved to the area to sell drugs, but did not cite any specific examples.
He went on to ask Smith how many arrests the sheriff’s office has made this year. Smith responded, “Total drug-related? Probably about 300.”
“And most of the other ones maybe have some kind of relation [to drugs],” Battle stated before, without giving Smith an opportunity to respond, continuing to talk about the drug problems that he has seen in the lower-income areas of the community.
“We have a fire department and we spend a lot of money there, and I don’t think they’ve saved a structure yet out in the county,” he continued a few minutes later. “Every trailer they go to burns down.”
Commissioner Waddell responded to this comment, saying, “They have saved several structures in this town … You can speak with John Ekaitis (who was in attendance). He’ll be glad to let you know.”
“Well, I know that most trailers burn up before they can get there,” Battle stated.
Waddell remarked that flammability is an unfortunate feature of the materials from which mobile homes are often constructed before returning to the previous subject, saying, “The sheriff, if he wants to create [a drug squad], he can … the sheriff is the one who creates a drug force.”
Battle asked if the sheriff has the money, and Chairman Howard stated that the budget for the current fiscal year is set and that the board will take that into account during the next year’s budget-setting meeting.
“In the meantime,” Howard continued, “law enforcement [officers] that carry a badge and a gun have the authority to enforce drug laws. You don’t have to have a drug task force, you’ve just got to know what you’re doing.”
“That’s it,” Battle replied. They don’t know, Randy [Howard]. They have not been trained to know.”
“Well then, that’s the sheriff’s fault,” Howard said.
“Oh, so it’s my fault?” Smith asked.
“You have to train people. If people aren’t receiving the proper training …” Howard began.
“I’m asking you if you’re saying that’s my fault,” Smith persisted.
“If you’re not training your folks, it is your fault,” Howard answered.
“The [District Attorney] has already said that he wants to put one [agent] in … ” Smith said. “The city said they’ll put two [officers] in and I want to put two in. That’s five right there. How much money are we going to be allowed to put in the budget? $50,000?”
“This isn’t the time. We will discuss this at the [budget-setting] meeting,” Howard concluded. “We have other things on the agenda tonight. We’ll discuss this at a later date … ”
“I’d like to be part of it,” Battle interjected.
Johnson, the speaker from earlier in the meeting, then chimed in, “I think it might be time to discuss it, Randy. You had a drug force when you were sheriff.”
“I created that. I worked myself into that,” Howard responded before detailing the effort that went into creating the squad.
“I think [the sheriff has] been handcuffed by you and this commission,” Johnson added before Battle wrapped up, saying “I hope that … I was listening last week about how you all was concerned about $37,000 vehicle and that’s ridiculous when we got all these peoples out here pumping drugs,” as he left the podium.
Howard, attempting to wrap up the discussion, said, “Every penny that goes into the sheriff’s office or the fire department … comes from property owners … Property owners in this county are [already heavily taxed]. Some of the folks I know … are hurting. Taxes are getting ridiculous … We need jobs in this community. We need industries. We have got to be able to do this. We can’t keep taxing folks … or they’re going to move, too. Or they might lose their homes.”
“I’ve got one more thing to say,” Battle stated as he made his way back to the podium. “If you keep taxing the people … How in the world can we entice businesses to come into this community … to make it attractive if we got all this criminal activity going on … and the major reason why is behind drugs.”
“There are drugs all across the country,” Howard reminded him before Battle retorted, “Well, we talking Sumter County.”
Waddell added, “I’ll say this. There hasn’t been a time that I can remember that the DA, the city, and the sheriff has come to us with a plan to [develop a drug squad]. It’s got to start with them. They’ve got to put it together. I’m not saying it’s going to happen tomorrow, but there’s got to be a plan put in place. You can come stand in here time and time again and talk about it, but until those agencies get together and come up with something … what are we going to do? We’re not active law enforcement officers. We don’t know how to fight drugs ourselves. We have not been trained to do that. The sheriff, the city … those agencies that know how have to pull those things together … We can’t make them do it.”
Commissioner Thomas Jordan then addressed Battle, saying, “One thing I’d like to see is you come in here with the type of energy you have tonight and bring it to the budget meeting. When we have the budget review, you can see where all this money comes from and where it is going.”
Jordan then informed Battle that the yearly budget reviews are open to citizens, that the meeting times are posted in local newspapers, and that the entire budget is discussed item-by item at the meeting.
“That don’t have anything to do with what we’re talking about these drugs,” Battle replied.
“That’s where the budget for this comes from,” Jordan answered.
“So you’re saying you don’t have the money,” Battle retorted.
“If you come to the meeting, you’ll see whether we have money or not, ” Jordan concluded.
Other items on the agenda for the regular meeting included the following.
• Linda Holloway, president of Sumter County Retired Educators, addressed the board, asking them to declare Nov. 1 “Retired Educators Day” in Sumter County. Holloway detailed several ways in which her group has benefited the community through donations to charitable organizations and community service. The board approved the request and Howard issued a proclamation declaring the first day of November as “Retired Educators Day”.
• Brent McCarty, Chief Ranger of the Georgia Forestry Commission, presented a report to the board, stating that the area has seen lower than average instances of wildfires this year. McCarty thanked the Sumter County Fire and Rescue for their assistance to the Forestry Commission. He stated that the Forestry Commission had reported 29 fires, which is well below the average for the last ten years, which is 56 fires. “We’re in good shape,” he said.
• Sumter County Department of Family and Child Services (DFCS) director, Loida Waters, then presented her quarterly report to the board. She discussed the progress that the department has been making, with foster home placement and other types of assistance that the department provides steadily increasing.
• The commissioners discussed a proposed intergovernmental agreement between the county and the land bank authority. Twomey advised the board to consider adding a clause into the agreement that stipulates that if any of the entities in the agreement decide to terminate the relationship in the future, that the entity’s assets would be returned.
• Nigel Poole, director of the Sumter County Emergency Management Agency (EMA), asked the commission to approve a grant from the Georgia EMA of $9,960. The board approved the request.
• Commissioner Clay Jones led a discussion on the possibility of naming one of the football fields at the Sumter County Recreational Complex after Miller Rush. Jones stated that Rush has served the Sumter County Parks and Recreation Department well for several years and that it would be appropriate to honor him by dedicating one of the two fields at the complex to him. Though it is not customary for county structures to be dedicated to individuals who are living, the board decided that such situations could be decided on a case-by-case basis and the motion was approved.
• Waddell addressed Whitaker, thanking him for his hard work with the Public Works Department. “You do what you have to do … ” he said. “You step up … for everybody in this county when it comes to roads and I know that the commission appreciates it. I know that it’s more about safety than what’s going on at the time.”