Two Columbus law enforcement agencies could merge in 2020. What would that mean for city?

A controversial issue affecting two local law enforcement agencies may come to a head next year after a city board recommended merging the Muscogee County Marshal and the Muscogee County Sheriff offices.

The Public Safety Advisory Commission, a group of citizens appointed by council members and led by Chairman Tyson Begly, was asked earlier this year to evaluate the impact of consolidation on public safety.

Begly told council on Tuesday the merger would increase efficiency and possibly save taxpayers money in the long run— maybe as much as $250,000 a year.

“We saw this as a way to improve the service to the citizens by having one collective pool of resources doing the same service. I think from a common sense mathematical viewpoint, it should be more efficient,” Begly said.

In a letter submitted to City Manager Isaiah Hugley August 12, the commission said now would be a good time to consider the merger because in years prior, consolidation would have forced the marshal out of the position.

Muscogee Marshal Greg Countryman announced in April that he would run for the sheriff’s office when the seat came up for election in 2020, leaving no incumbent in the marshal’s office.

The marshal’s office handles civil process through the Municipal Court, and the bulk of the work of the marshal’s deputies is in carrying out dispossessory warrants, which means landlords filed with the court to evict a tenant, and evictions.

Sheriff’s deputies handle the processes of the Superior Court and provide security for courtrooms, as well as carrying out evictions, though on a lesser scale. The office is also responsible for running the Muscogee County Jail.

“The two offices have significant overlap of services, and therefore a merger would provide the county and city with a larger, single pool of resources to address their combined court and eviction needs,” the letter says.

The commission also wrote that they estimate saving $250,000 a year due to lower administrative and facility costs, with more cost savings in the long term.

Sheriff Donna Tompkins, who took office in January 2017, has announced her intention to run again for the office.

She brought the recommendation for consolidation to council during a budget session in May, and council gave it to the Public Safety Advisory Commission to review.

In June, she told the commission what the consolidation would mean for her office and how it would create efficiencies.

“Sheriff’s deputies can serve all civil process and marshal’s deputies only serve one court, Municipal Court,” Tompkins said Thursday. “So it would be an efficiency thing.”

Tompkins said she knows the issue is a “political hot topic,” but that she has nothing against anyone who would want to run for the marshal seat.

“I certainly know that people have said that perhaps they would run for the office, and I have no issue with that, but if the people decide (consolidation) would be a good idea, I have no issue with that either,” she said. “I could take the people, I could use the people.”

Tompkins said she has experience with big transitions such as when she became sheriff.

“Obviously the public would be concerned that anyone would lose their job, and I don’t think that would be any intention of anyone,” she said. “There’s vacancies here and there’s vacancies at the police department if someone didn’t want to be here. I’m certain that we could figure all of that out.”

Tompkins said she also doesn’t anticipate any big budgetary impacts.

“We have about a $28.5 million budget and I think the marshal’s is about a 1.5 million budget, really we would just absorb that in the sense of the employees and that kind of thing,” she said. “All of those people would continue to be able to do what they do but they would also be able to do other things that are the authority of the sheriff.”

Begly told council Tuesday that he invited the marshal to attend a meeting of the commission and speak, but Countryman declined.

Countryman did not return calls for comment prior to this story’s deadline. In the past, he has said there is a need for the three arms of local law enforcement to remain intact.

What’s next

Columbus Council voted Tuesday to ask state representatives to consider consolidating the offices during the 2020 legislative session.

The consolidation could be passed at the state level as local legislation, which was how the offices were created, or taken to the citizens as a referendum.

A referendum is less likely as it could create confusion for voters: if anyone ran for the marshal’s seat next year, they would likely be on the same ballot as a referendum to get rid of the office all together.

District 3 Councilor Bruce Huff and District 7 Commissioner Mimi Woodson both said they would like the legislators to consider bringing the decision to Muscogee voters in a referendum.

“This is a very sensitive issue in the community,” Woodson said. “Because while we sit around here, and we’re looking at the budget and we’re looking at the impact of it, there are citizens out there that really depend on this service, they’re really concerned about it.”

Hugley said services would not be affected.

“I want to be clear to the citizens...if these two offices were combined, the service would not go away. It would still exist it would just be under the sheriff’s office,” Hugley said.

District 2 Councilor Glenn Davis said he had been pushing for the merger for a long time.

“Services will be the same or even better,” he said. “I think it’s the right time...I’m hearing a lot of conversation out in the community about utilizing our resources better...this is clearly a business decision, the way I look at it.”

The resolution is among others approved by council Tuesday that outline the council’s 2020 legislative priorities. Hugley said the resolution requesting the consolidation will be presented to the city’s legislative delegation for consideration on October 24.

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Allie Dean is the Columbus city government and accountability reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer, and also writes about new restaurants, developments and issues important to readers in the Chattahoochee Valley. She’s a graduate of the University of Georgia.