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Update: Mayor Tomlinson's proposed budget draws fire from sheriff, marshal

Responding to her proposed budget that would cut his fiscal 2016 budget and staff, Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr accused Mayor Teresa Tomlinson of lying in her budget presentation.

Tomlinson’s proposed $265 million fiscal 2016 budget calls for reducing Darr’s and Marshal Greg Countryman’s budgets in order to eliminate “duplicative services” already provided by the Columbus Police Department.

The sheriff’s budget would be reduced from $27.65 million in fiscal 2015 to $26.97 million in fiscal 2016, a cut of about $680,000, or about 2.5 percent.

The marshal’s budget would be cut from $1.58 million to $1.23 million, a cut of about $350,000, or about 22 percent.

“I think it’s important for the people to know that she’s putting out information that are lies, and we want to make sure that people understand that some of her information isn’t correct,” Darr said.

Eight positions would be eliminated in the Sheriff’s Office’s investigative services division. Those positions would be offset by an identical increase in the police department’s investigations division. The positions added to CPD would be one sergeant, six corporals and one analyst.

Six positions would be eliminated from the marshal’s office and reallocated to the police department’s patrol division.

Darr said it is true that his office employs investigators, but their work rarely overlaps with police investigators. Sheriff’s Office investigators spend a lot of time investigating people who have warrants out for them, incidents within the county jail, and only occasionally the kind of criminal activity that the police department investigates, Darr said.

“Their function is to provide support within the sheriff’s office for deputies on the street doing their job, but also in the jail,” Darr said. “Have we ever done something that (police investigators) do? Of course we have. But that’s not their primary focus. That would be investigations of things that occur at the jail and anything that comes up within the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office.”

Tomlinson disagreed with Darr’s assertion, saying the deputies that her office identified to possibly be reallocated work on drug and other criminal investigations, which are already being performed by the police department.

During Tomlinson’s budget presentation to Council, she referred to the police department as “the only 24-hour, seven–day-a-week law enforcement agency,” which Darr took issue with.

“That’s a lie. We have people who work 24-7 at the jail,” Darr said. “We have a people working all night long to serve civil process, serve subpoenas, serve warrants, pick up prisoners, pick up mental health patients, and answer calls from the police department if they get tied up.”

Tomlinson responded: “If you call the sheriff’s office after hours, you get a recording saying they’re closed and to call 911 if it’s an emergency. I’ll tell you what they’re not doing, is answering 911 calls.”

Darr said a 2.5 percent budget cut would have a “huge impact” on his ability to carry out the responsibilities of his office.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again today. We are not fully funded like we need to be to begin with,” Darr said. “So now when you add the cut in this budget, of course it’s going to have a huge impact on field operations where we provide security to the courts and to civil processing, to even at the jail, where it would have a huge impact on the safety of our officers, but the inmates, too.”

Tomlinson’s budget letter states that the sheriff’s office has overspent its budget a total of $11.3 million over the last six years, costing the city about 22 days of reserve to cover the spending. The city is currently barely above the 60-day reserve threshold, below which the city risks having its bond rating lowered.

“Had it not been for those overruns, our current General Reserve Fund would stand at over 83 days, well over the required 60-day reserve minimum,” the letter states. “These annual overruns, together with the stagnant revenues following the Great Recession, have brought CCG perilously close to the edge of financial stability.”

The budget letter also claims that Muscogee County funds its sheriff’s office at a higher rate per capita than many other counties. Muscogee County, population 203,000, spends $151 per capita for the sheriff’s office while Clayton (population 264,000) spends $127, Clarke (121,000) spends $122, Gwinnett (859,000) spends $87 per capita, according to the Mayor’s report.

“No matter how we look at the numbers, whether by resident population, jail capacity, number of municipal entities within the county or whether the county has a consolidated government CCG expends more per capita than any other jurisdiction with a sheriff’s office and a county police department,” the letter says.

Darr accused Tomlinson of “cherry picking” those numbers, and claimed he will produce statistics that show just the opposite when he appears before Columbus Council in two weeks.

The budget also calls for reducing the number of pursuit vehicles and take-home vehicles provided for each department. The sheriff’s office currently has 61 pursuit vehicles and 55 take-home vehicles. The budget recommends reducing those numbers to 26 pursuit and 26 take-home vehicles. The marshal’s office has 13 pursuit vehicles and 18 take-home vehicles. The budget recommends that the marshal have no pursuit vehicles and five take-home vehicles.

The vehicle reduction would not produce any immediate savings, the mayor’s budget letter notes, but would result in $875,000 in “immediate future” savings from the sheriff’s office and $325,000 from the marshal’s.

Because of the reduced number of vehicles, the budget recommends reducing the sheriff’s fuel budget by $20,000 and the marshal’s by $3,000.

Darr and Countryman are two of four local elected officials who are currently suing the Consolidated Government and many of its top elected and appointed officials because they say their offices are not funded sufficiently to carry out their obligations. The other two are Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Bishop.

Countryman raised the subject of those lawsuits when asked about his budget cuts.

“Mayor Tomlinson seems determined to keep the city embroiled in litigation for the remainder of her term,” Countryman said. “Her continuing intentional disregard of the city charter on the heels of three costly lawsuits is reckless and a dereliction of duty. Any illusory budget savings will be consumed by legal fees.

“ Her callous actions when crime is at an all-time high under her watch should be a wake-up call to Council and the citizens of Columbus.”

Police Chief Ricky Boren declined to comment.

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