Editor's note: This is the first of two articles on issues discussed during Thursday's political forum.
By Lori Glenn
MOULTRIE -- The Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce's political forum for the July primary drew a crowd of citizens that filled the main room at the courthouse annex Thursday.
In the sheriff's race, which will be determined July 20, incumbent Colquitt County Sheriff Al Whittington and his opposition, Berlin Police Chief Randy Oliver, were asked what can be done to tamp down on increased crime in the county.
Oliver said that the CCSO can use its current staff and shift around personnel to increase patrol and offer proactive patrol in rural criminal hot spots.
"I feel like there are positions in other departments that are not being fully deployed in the manner they should be," Oliver said. "We have enough people to run the sheriff's department; it just needs to be restructured to allow more coverage on the road and the neighborhoods."
Whittington noted that an increase of population results in an increase of crime.
"I agree with Randy, we need to increase patrols," Whittington said.
This year, Whittington said, the county is at the point he can increase the patrol from three units to four. He had approached the commission for additional staff to have deputies in four quadrants and a supervisor roaming and at the ready to assist, but his request was denied. So, Whittington said, now there will be three deputies and the supervisor will patrol the fourth quadrant.
"One of the biggest issues we face is limited manpower," he said. "God forbid if anything real serious were to take place, I nor the police department on its own have the manpower to take care of the situation. That's why we've agreed to go into a joint (SWAT) training detail. We look forward to a good working relationship."
Oliver said he couldn't complain about the CCSO's support of outlying municipalities, but recounted instances where the CCSO called on the Berlin Police Department to answer calls and cover until the deputy could drive across the county. The problem with that, he said, is that Berlin Police Department has no power of arrest outside its city limits. Oliver suggests swearing in police officers with limited powers of arrest.
"How do you do that?" Whittington said later. "You're either deputized or you're not."
Recently, Whittington deputized Moultrie officers as a step toward a joint drug squad he hopes to create. He said he would have to have some say-so regarding who gets deputized.
Commission candidates urge frugality
In the county commissioners' races, two seats are contested in the primary.
Incumbent Commissioner Merle Hall, Democrat, District 6, is opposed by Jackson Transmissions Manager Johnny Hardin, also a Democrat and first-time political candidate. Incumbent Commissioner Billy Herndon, Democrat, District 4, is challenged by Leland Dampier Sr., former warden of the Colquitt County Correctional Institution.
The first question fired at the county candidates was about zoning.
All agreed that some long-range planning, to an extent, is necessary in Colquitt County.
The second one lobbed at them was about managing the county budget.
Herndon and Hall stood on their records of voting against tax hikes.
"We can't spend more than we take in. We're sort of biting the bullet, trying to hold it down to where we can," Herndon said, adding expected future industrial growth in Colquitt County eventually will alleviate revenue shortfalls.
Dampier called for a complete assessment of the county to determine true needs and eliminate waste. Some smaller departments, he said, can be combined. Plus, budgeting should take place after determining the digest not before.
"I've talked with a lot of people in other counties ... They have the same problems that we have and some of them have about gotten it worked out by reassessing and seeing where we're at and where to go."
Hardin, who has attended county meetings regularly for 13 years, criticized the depletion of the county's reserves by a couple of million dollars over the last several years.
"At that rate, we will be back in the same shape that we were in 1991 and 1992 where the county had to borrow money just to operate. I think at one time, the county borrowed, if I'm not mistaken, $3.5 million a year to operate this county," he said, adding an insurance policy had to be bought to guarantee a payback.
"We don't want taxes. We don't want to go into reserves. The state has told us we need to operate with $8 million in reserves. ... The only thing left is to cut spending," Hardin said.
"We can't keep going the way we're doing," Hall said, saying department wish lists soon elevate to needs lists. "You can't believe how important some of these things get to be that they didn't even know about six months earlier. ... My theory is to get by on what we have."