At a time when most city departments are adhering to a mandatory or voluntary freeze on hiring and salary increases, Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength defends the 48 new hires his department has made this year as necessary replacements for resigned, terminated or retiring staff.
"Anybody hired with the sheriff's office is a replacement hire, not an additional employee," he said.
According to data provided by Augusta's human resources office, since early 2010 the department has lost 76 people, significantly more than the 48 it has added this year.
The losses include six investigators, eight records clerks, 19 jailers and 36 road patrol deputies. Twenty-one of them retired from careers with the sheriff's office.
To replace them, the office this year has hired 29 jailers, six records clerks and 13 road patrol deputies, according to the human resources data. Five other deputies were promoted to fill newly vacant positions, the sheriff said.
Turnover is extremely high at the jails, and recruiting people who can pass a background check and polygraph has become increasingly difficult, particularly as the city has implemented a second year of furlough pay reductions, sheriff's Col. Gary Powell said.
The recent hires don't include 20 new jailers budgeted to staff an expansion set to open later this year at Charles B. Webster Detention Center, Strength said.
If those jobs are staffed and all the sheriff's office vacancies are filled -- which Powell said was rare and unlikely -- only then would the department return to its ideal staffing level.
Strength said that based on his administration's experience, the ideal allotment to adequately police the county on a budget is 750 positions.
"We've been doing it for 35 years, and we know what we're doing," he said.
But 750 positions -- about the number of personnel the sheriff's office was allotted in 1998, 1999 and 2000 -- included 68 deputies whose salaries were paid for using generous federal Community-Oriented Policing Services grants of the late 1990s that have since dried up.
"The commission had to decide to fund them, and we lost them," Strength said.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who was in office when former Sheriff Charles B. Webster applied for the three-year COPS grants, recalled, "We told him up front that we wouldn't have the funds to keep paying them."
Since 1998's peak of 752 employees -- a number that excludes 911 communications personnel then under the sheriff's office and part-time school crossing guards -- the department's staff allotment dropped to 716 in 2001 and made gradual annual gains to 2011's budgeted allotment of 756 positions.
It has taken a decade for the sheriff's office to return to 2000 staffing levels, which relied on a nonrenewable funding source.
Most of the personnel growth has taken place in the form of bailiffs to staff 16 new court and hearing rooms in the new Augusta Judicial Center, and jailers needed for expansions at Webster Detention Center, not beat officers.
Though the Richmond County marshal handles door security at the downtown sheriff's office, the municipal building and the courthouse, the sheriff is responsible for security in the courtrooms.
Webster jailers and other staff have increased from 86 in 2000 to 118 allotted for 2011, while bailiffs who protect courtrooms grew from 31 in 2001 to 42 this year.
Over the same period, the number of investigators dropped by two and narcotics lost one. Uniformed deputies have dropped by 39 since 2000. The COPS grant ran out in 2001.
The sheriff's budget grew from $40.6 million in 2000, when $1.5 million in COPS grant funds made up 46 percent of the Augusta general fund/law enforcement budget, to $56.1 million in 2011, when it was close to 42 percent.