Thanks to Sheriff Frank Reynolds, Fire Chief Eddie Robinson, E 9-1-1 Director Shane Bonebrake and others, Cherokee County’s public safety services are among Georgia’s best. Our challenge is to continue building and growing these services to match the county’s growth. That remains the top consideration as we enter the budget process for fiscal year 2023 this fall. Fortunately, the county is in excellent financial shape, and we enjoy the second lowest combined county commission-controlled tax rate of 159 counties.
The first budget issue is inflation, especially in salaries. Public safety officers are in high demand. We must pay them what it takes to recruit and retain top quality officers. During the past two years, we increased public safety salaries by 10% beyond normal cost-of-living increases, to catch salaries up with surrounding counties. And it did, briefly. But the bidding war for these officers didn’t stop, and salaries again are behind nearby counties.
We also need to continue adding public safety officers. Sheriff Reynolds has opened a sixth police precinct near Ball Ground, to help reduce the large areas covered by the Waleska and Free Home precincts, and to reduce response times. Currently, the new precinct is staffed only during the day. At night, the other precincts assume that coverage area. It will take 10 more officers to staff it 24/7.
Residents are requesting additional traffic patrols and enforcement on busy roads. The traffic unit is staffed with 20 officers, which is about five per shift. While they do a great job with the resources they have, we need to work toward doubling that team.
Sheriff Reynolds asked for funding to expand the 21st century technology for preventing and solving crimes that they have begun deploying. It’s amazing what they already can do, and we need to take it to the next level.
With the latest class graduating from fire recruit training, our fire department has reached a goal to staff every fire engine with at least three firefighters/EMTs on nearly all shifts. That’s important, because six is the minimum necessary to attack a major structure fire. They now can reach that level with just two fire companies responding, versus three in the past. But, there’s still one old volunteer station and one new temporary station that need to be staffed permanently to get most areas in the county within 5 miles of an active station.
Our highly rated advanced life support ambulance service stays busy. With the county still growing at about 2% annually, we need to add another ambulance about every three years. With relief staffing, that’s four new paramedics and four EMTs.
Shane Bonebrake has re-energized our emergency call center and dispatch team. It’s tough work, and 911 operators are difficult to hire and retain. Shane has filled all positions, greatly reducing their overtime burden and stress.
Thanks to everyone in county public safety for their excellence in keeping us safe. Let’s continue to reward them adequately and grow their numbers as necessary.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Harry Johnston is chairman of the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners. He’s a retired CPA and accounting manager, and a former district commissioner.