PTC to re-evaluate police, fire needs

Thu, 06/07/2007 - 5:37pm
By: The Citizen

First draft of budget only had one cop, no firefighters

With only one police officer and no new firefighters in the first draft of Peachtree City’s budget for next year, it didn’t appear as if the city’s public safety divisions would get much of a manpower boost.

But at Tuesday night’s budget workshop, the tide began to change as the City Council asked staff to get figures on how much it will cost to add more police officers and firefighters.

The budget already has a proposed .25 mill increase in property taxes, which equates to a $20 hike for a home valued at $200,000. Part of the increase is to cover firefighter salaries from the three that were hired the middle of this year using money that had been set aside for a grant that fell through.

While the city faces a continuing amount of vacant police officer positions, Police Chief James Murray warned council that without additional patrols on the city’s cart path system, crimes such as burglaries and assaults will increase over time.

Council members instructed city staff to look at possibly increasing police pay in a bid to not only keep existing officers but also to spark recruitment of new officers.

On the fire department side, acting Fire Chief Ed Eiswerth told council that the goal is to get the city to having 19 firefighters per shift. With that, the city could have two firefighters responding on each apparatus, meaning that it could meet the national standard of having four firefighters on the scene within five minutes — a standard that the city currently can’t meet with the 15 firefighters currently on each shift.

“For a city our size, we are undermanned,” Eiswerth told council.

The fire department asked for six new firefighters but the first version of the budget included none.

City staff was asked to bring back to council figures on how much it will cost to add one or two firefighters to each shift. Adding one to each shift involves three full-time hires and a part-time firefighter to fill in for when those people go on vacation, sick leave or training. Then there’s the cost of equipping the firefighters, and similar costs for police equipment.

Murray had asked for eight police officers but even when six new officers hit the street later this year after graduating police academy, two pending resignations will leave the department with five remaining openings to fill. Murray said qualified candidates are hard to find because so many of them fail the polygraph test that the city requires of all recruits before they are accepted into the program.

Of the 12 officers Murray sought — including eight patrol officers, two detectives, a sergeant, and a training lieutenant — City Manager Bernie McMullen only authorized one in the proposed budget. The 12 positions would allow the city to add a fifth patrol zone, which has been sought since 1996, Murray said.

The only officer authorized by McMullen in the first draft of the budget was for additional cart path patrol, and Murray said that officer would be used on the more commonly used paths during their periods of highest use, which is typically on the weekends. A tracking system will be needed to keep tabs on the officer’s whereabouts when he or she works alone, Murray said, though the chief has hopes he could pair the officer with another officer or a auxiliary officer for at least some of the new officer’s cart patrol shift.

Though council members Steve Boone and Harold Logsdon said they were okay with just adding one police officer, others on council said they were interested in increasing the number of new officers to two, perhaps three for the 2007-2008 budget year.

Councilwoman Judi-ann Rutherford said adequate public safety is the biggest issue she’s hearing about from residents.

“What is our primary responsibility?” Rutherford asked. “If it’s not public safety, what is it?”

Logsdon said he was content on waiting to beef up public safety employees until the newly annexed West Village began to come online in several years. By that time the city will be getting additional revenue from property taxes.

Rutherford countered that the city may not be able to wait that long.

Boone said that a number of residents, many of whom are retired, also don’t want to see city taxes increase.

McMullen said most of the public safety positions, including those sought by the fire department, were needed.

“It’s just a matter of how do we pay for them,” McMullen said.

Rutherford and Councilwoman Cyndi Plunkett insisted that the city needs to look at the police pay issue immediately. Plunkett asked Murray why he didn’t program money into his budget factoring increased salaries for rookie police officers.

Murray replied that he had asked for salary increases in a memo sent to McMullen in January. Apparently no action was ever taken on the memo.

Eiswerth said the city was lucky to have had firefighters in the city several months ago when a TDK warehouse caught on fire in the industrial park. Eiswerth noted that there were more than 100 firefighters at the blaze, and without the assistance of the Fairburn Fire Department, which happened to be training at Peachtree City’s burn building at the time, the fire could have been a lot worse.

The department called in 61 personnel to help with the fire, Eiswerth noted.

McMullen noted that in a recent survey of other cities, Peachtree City had the only fire department that used a part-time firefighter to fill in when a firefighter was on vacation, sick leave or training. The city commits to fill all 15 positions on each shift, which in addition to using part-time staff also creates a need for overtime to be paid, McMullen added.

At the end of the meeting Rutherford said council needed to decide if the need for additional public safety employees supported a need for a property tax increase, cutting other items from the city’s budget, or both.

McMullen said he would prepare a list of suggested items to cut from the budget that would be presented to council.

The budget for the police department includes lease payments for a firearms simulator that provides officers with real-life training scenarios, but equipment for instant fingerprint analysis was pushed back to the following fiscal year. Murray said without the fingerprint equipment the department has to either ask another agency to run the fingerprint checks or send the fingerprint cards to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, where the turnaround time can be eight weeks or more.

The fire department budget includes $30,000 to begin replacing 14-year-old radios which are no longer manufactured and thus are also hard to get repaired, Eiswerth explained.

Eiswerth also noted that a $50,000 Ford Expedition in the budget was needed as a command vehicle for the department’s volunteer commander, but after several council members balked he said it could be put off one more year.

login to post comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
cowtipn's picture
Submitted by cowtipn on Fri, 06/08/2007 - 10:16am.

Why do we need our own firearms simulator? Seems like that would be more money than a fingerprint analysis program. When you're on a tight budget, you don't spend money on perquisite consumptions. Instead, you focus on investing in programs that create real value in the future.
For instance, I can see the cost savings created by investing in a fingerprint analysis program if it increases efficiency and lowers lag time in prosecution. I cannot see value additivity in buying a $50,000 gas guzzler. What is a volunteer command center anyway? If I organized a group of volunteers to pick up litter, could I get my own $50,000 "command center?"

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.