No Cops in Washington

July 18, 2014 13:56 pm

by Chet Martin · 12 comments

Washington, Georgia is going lawless. The town of 4,300 people, famous as the last meeting place of the Confederate cabinet and for its vintage Gone with the Wind advertisement, has disbanded its police force. The Wilkes County (population ~10,000) Sheriff’s Department will take over in a “money-saving move” according to Mayor Ames Barnett, who cast the deciding vote. Washington Police Chief Theodosia Glen was “not surprised” that she and her 14 police officers are out of a job but angry that the July 17 decision was made effective July 18.

For reasons I’ll never entirely understand, I have attended a couple meetings of the Washington Town Council. Though everyone I met was charming, the town’s political culture was less than genial. That such a sweeping measure managed to pass through a contentious body shows just how dire the financial situation must be.

Of the 159 counties, Wilkes is 127th largest. Roughly a fifth of counties in the state are smaller. Washington is the 186th largest incorporated city in a state of 573.  If a city in the top third of population wants to save by eliminating its police force, how difficult must it be for other small towns to balance a budget on shrinking populations and a dwindling tax base?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Will Durant July 18, 2014 at 5:13 pm

I’ve observed that the reduction of the Arcade, GA police force from 14 to 4 greatly improved the safety of the wallet contents of those passing through the hamlet. To my knowledge the public safety hasn’t been harmed one whit either. They’ve even been able to remove the revenue enhancing construction barrels that lived alongside 129 for so many years which has improved traffic safety.

saltycracker July 18, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Going lawless ? A sheriff dept. Can’t handle a population of 10,000 ? It is a waste of taxpayer $$$ to have a county that small much less a city…..but if nostalgia is worth it…let them do it sans state $$ for something. Washington would be a cool place anyway it goes.

George Chidi July 19, 2014 at 9:44 am

I serve on the city council of Pine Lake, as some of you know. Population about 700, not counting evil geese. I was elected in November because it was apparently my turn on the rotation.

Our budget is about $800,000, of which about $205,000 goes to police. We don’t field a full-time police force any more, although we intend to return to it once property values recover sufficiently. During the recession we cut everything to the absolute minimum, and still ended up with the highest city millage rate in Georgia.

Some years back Pine Lake had been filling the budget gap by writing traffic tickets for … well, basically, anyone they could on Rockbridge Road. The city was pulling in about $800,000 a year with 12 full-time cops at once point. Protests in 1999 led the city to basically scrap its force. We’re down to three full-time equivalents and a platoon of part-timers and reserves, and we’re still barely scraping by. But we’ve vowed never again to restart the ticket trap regime, even though our taxes are insane.

The ticketing practices destroyed goodwill between the city and the surrounding community, and it’s made building a commercial district incredibly hard, for the obvious reason that people nearby don’t want to drive through Pine Lake. We’re rebuilding that relationship, but it will take time. It speaks to the need for cities to have a balanced economy and economic viability — the tax balance between commercial and residential bases that folks proposing cities in Tucker and Lakeside wrestle over today.

saltycracker July 19, 2014 at 9:59 am

Well said. As a regular on I75 from No. Ga to Fla we joke about the many areas with multiple police cars drumming up revenue for their cash strapped small towns. Your remarks would fall on their deaf ears as who cares about the interstate through traffic. Their plundering of the strangers feeds a Hitchcock/Bates image of South Georgia. We stay under 80 and keep on going.

Harry July 19, 2014 at 1:19 pm

And the billboards. You know when you’ve crossed into Georgia.

gcp July 19, 2014 at 10:10 am

Why does Pine Lake have a police department? Might be best to dump it and contract with county pd.

George Chidi July 19, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Fair question. We believe the increase in our property values outweighs the cost.

The net cost to us is roughly $130,000. The city takes in about $175,000 in traffic fines annually — a figure that has been declining by double-digits for the last few years, even accounting for the dramatic pullback in fines in 2001. Our court administration costs about $100,000 a year, leaving $75,000 to offset the cost of policing.

The net present value of a $130,000 annual expenditure is roughly $2.6 million at current interest rates. That implies that eliminating police would reduce taxes sufficiently to increase aggregate property values in the city by $2.6 million.

Only, it wouldn’t. Comparable properties near Pine Lake are valued an average of about $35,000 less. Some of that can be attributed to the special nature of the city — a close-knit hippie community surrounded by the highest ratio of public parkland to overall acreage in Georgia. Some of it might be due to local planning and zoning control. But I suggest half of that can be attributed to having a police officer no more than 90 seconds from your door in an emergency. Pine Lake’s crime rate is puny, even though we’re in the middle of DeKalb County.

That $35,000 average increase in value translates into a tax digest about $6 million higher than the comparable par.

There are other reasons, too. For example, about 25-30 percent of Pine Lake’s households are gay, lesbian or bisexual. There’s added value in having a police department that can be expected to manage LGBT public safety issues with sensitivity. Also, the county’s response to property crime and code enforcement in unincorporated commercial areas near us has been … unsatisfactory … or so business owners tell us. Basically, the county cops don’t respond without significant provocation. We think the police may serve as an economic development tool as a result, if used correctly to protect property owners instead of as a ticket-issuing machine.

saltycracker July 19, 2014 at 2:36 pm

I got this visual of a hippie dude sitting on the front steps of his $40k home, rolling a fat one and being surrounded by a million dollar DeKalb swat team…….might want to keep a police force….they’ll treat property crime seriously too, DeKalb will not.

What is good for you may not apply in rural small counties.

George Chidi July 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm
The Last Democrat in Georgia July 20, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Good comments.

Jane July 20, 2014 at 11:19 pm

The county in Kansas where my parents grew up had two cops, one day time and one night time. The day time cop was the sheriff.

Harry July 21, 2014 at 1:09 pm

And I bet the local teenagers would play funny jokes on them!