Wednesday, August 4, 2021

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County, cities buck ‘defund police’ rhetoric; most have increases

It’s been just over a year since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop ignited a nationwide movement to “defund the police.” This message has since burrowed its way into the budgets of some major American cities, where they’ve imposed a measure of belt tightening on the ranks of law enforcement.

So far, however, this forcible slim down seems to have largely bypassed the police agencies that operate within Alamance County. In fact, the proposed spending plans that the county and its constituent municipalities have released this spring show a marked tendency to loosen, rather than tighten, the drawstrings on behalf of the professional crime fighters whom they employ.

Thanks to robust sales and property tax revenues, not to mention the continued infusion of federal pandemic relief, local authorities have been inclined to restore funds to all sorts of public services that were squeezed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, this swing away from austerity has been especially conspicuous with law enforcement budgets – which, in some cases, are set to increase above and beyond their pre-pandemic levels.

 

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Feast, not famine for sheriff
The push to “re-fund” rather than “defund” the police has been taken up with particular zest by Alamance County’s board of commissioners, which began to lavish more funds on the local sheriff’s office even before it received the first draft of county’s next annual budget earlier this spring.

In the opening weeks of January, Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood encouraged the commissioners to set aside $756,400 from the county’s better-than-expected sales tax receipts in order to add eight more deputies to the sheriff’s payroll. This influx of new hires ultimately enabled sheriff Terry Johnson to add four patrol deputies, which he had asked the commissioners to green light in order to staunch an increase in turnover within his department. Johnson proposed to assign the rest of the new positions to a special strike force that the U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s Middle District had previously announced plans to establish.

Yet, the largesse that the sheriff received at the start of the calendar year was merely a dress rehearsal for the generous treatment that he stands to receive in Hagood’s proposed budget. Although the county manager makes some effort to spread out the county’s newfound wealth among its various departments and agencies, his recommendation for the sheriff’s office amounts to an increase of nearly $2.5 million over and above the $25.9 million that the commissioners had allocated last June for the sheriff’s own operations, the county’s detention center, and the school resource officers who are supervised by the sheriff. In terms of raw dollars and cents, the county manager’s proposed hike for the sheriff’s office overshadows his recommendation for any other revenue recipient save for the Alamance-Burlington school system.

Among the highlights of Hagood’s recommendation for the sheriff is the addition of four new school resource officers at schools situated in the sheriff’s primary jurisdiction and the restaffing of 14 posts in the county jail that had been left vacant due to a drop-off in inmates at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The county manager has also set aside $877,359 to give a 5 percent “cost of living” pay raises to each of the sheriff’s sworn deputies, jailers, and school recourse officers. This potential wage hike amounts to a substantial improvement over the 2-percent cost of living raise that Hagood has proposed for other county staff members – albeit in combination with a “merit-based” raise, which is not extended to the sheriff’s subordinates, and that could be worth up to an additional 2-percent per employee.

 

More cops in municipal budgets
Hagood, however, isn’t the only local government manager who has lavished his generosity on the law enforcement officers who labor for the local government that he oversees.
Two weeks ago, Graham’s interim city manager Aaron Holland unveiled a proposed spending plan that aims to add two new police officers to the city’s police force, although Holland attempts to soften the budgetary blow by delaying the start dates of the two newcomers until January of 2022. Also on tap for Graham’s police department are heating and air conditioning repairs as well as four replacement vehicles that Holland has seen fit to include in his recommended budget.

The Mebane police may be in for an even more significant growth spurt in the new fiscal year. According to the proposed budget that city manager Chris Rollins presented earlier this month, five of Mebane’s 10 recommended new hires would be added to the city’s police force. These positions include a new investigator with a salary of $81,911 and an assigned vehicle with an estimated cost of $45,200. The manager’s other proposed additions to the police force are all patrol officers – who, like Holland’s two recommended new hires in Graham, would have their start dates postponed until January to lessen the impact on the city’s next budget.

Also on the way up is the police department in Gibsonville, which town manager Ben Baxley formally premiered last week included two police officers among its three recommended new hires. Baxley has proposed bringing on one of the newcomers at the start of the next fiscal year – at a projected cost to the town of $71,000 in salaries, equipment, and benefits. The other new hire would be deployed six months later with a more modest budgetary impact of $40,000 next year.

In addition to these two additional patrol officers, Baxley has recommended the acquisition of four new patrol cars – two of which would replace old, higher-mile vehicles – at an estimated cost to the town of $228,000.

 

Burlington also pumps up PD
Even those local municipalities that aren’t considering expanding their respective police forces can hardly be accused of short changing their law enforcement officers.

In Burlington, for instance, new police officers aren’t numbered among the two additional employees that appear in the budget which city manager Hardin Watkins rolled out earlier this month. Watkins has nevertheless proposed a number of other sweeteners for the city’s police force, whose departmental budget is slated to grow by $424,612, or roughly 2.4 percent, under his proposed spending plan for the city.

Watkins has assured The Alamance News that the notion of “defunding” hasn’t even come up in his deliberations about the city’s annual budget.

“That is not anything that anyone has mentioned to me from our elected officials or from people in the community,” the city manager stressed in an interview Monday. “What you’ll see in this budget is more resources going to the police and more things that will help the police.”

Watkins noted that his proposed spending plan for the city includes a merit-based raise for the police department that averages out to a 2.3 percent increase per person – as opposed to the 2.0 percent merit-based hike he’s recommending for the rest of Burlington’s city staff. The city manager also alluded to some proposed reallocations of the police department’s civilian staff as well as the recommended addition of a new animal services officer, which he said will handle non-emergency calls related to animals that are currently fielded by the city’s patrol officers.

In the meantime, Watkins said that he plans to approach Burlington’s city council next Tuesday with a grant application for six additional officers from the U.S. Justice Department’s office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. The city manager added that, if the city’s application is ultimately accepted, the plan is to use the proceeds to assign a new “intelligence” officer to each of the department’s six patrol shifts to improve the agency’s response to street gangs and violent crime.

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