Budget cuts are expected to force local sheriff's officials to slim down staff in the new year after a three-year federal grant runs out.
But federal officials say such situations are not unusual for police agencies that fund deputy positions with federal money.
They also say losing deputies defeats the purpose of their programs.
"We don't have a universal recipe for how to retain officers (once federal funding ends), but that's really the most important aspect of the program," said Jeff Thorson, a spokesman for the Washington-based Community Oriented Policing Services grant.
The federal government's $3.6 million COPS grant has subsidized the salaries of 68 sheriff's deputies for the past three years, but that funding source will end in 2001. And with no new federal grants to assume the costs, the city was left to pick up the $1.5 million tab.
But it's a bill Augusta commissioners say they can't pay.
The commission approved the city's 2001 general operating budget of $91,131,000 Wednesday evening. The months-long process - which incorporated several business fee increases but no property tax rises - required a 3.5 percent across-the-board cut of local government expenses - about $3.4 million.
Sheriff-elect Ronnie Strength told commissioners Wednesday that such a cut to his budget could force him to eliminate about 41 road deputy positions - many of which are funded by the COPS grant.
The COPS program falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice and is a major part of President Clinton's 1994 Crime Bill. It aims to bring police forces to a ratio of 2.57 sworn officers per 1,000 people.
Augusta's sworn police force of 535 is slightly larger than what the grant program recommends at 514. But the citywide budget cuts are expected to drop the department slightly below that suggested force strength.
"You don't bring somebody in brand new, particularly to the sheriff's department, and lay them off after two years," Mr. Thorson said. "It's a career path, and the retention factors are just as important (as the public safety factors)."
But typically, the people who make the most also are the ones least likely to lose their jobs. Positions will be eliminated through attrition, which, in the sheriff's department occurs most often among the road patrol officers who make up the largest part of the city's police force.
"(It) is sizable, but this is a sizable department, so it's going to get the biggest cut," Sheriff-elect Strength said. "We're concerned, and the commission is concerned. We just don't know what type of impact it's going to have."
Job turnover typically is low among higher-paid, administration employees, while it is higher within the lower-paid road patrol force, made up of nearly 250 deputies.
Sheriff-elect Strength said Thursday that the next few weeks will be spent looking at other areas where additional expenses can be trimmed in an effort to avoid reducing police presence on the streets.
"We are going to work with them, and we are going to give them the best possible service with what we have," he said.
Each city department, including the sheriff's office, has until Jan. 31 to find its 3.5 percent savings. The sheriff's department, the city's largest operating expense, will be responsible for coming up with one-third of those cost savings to the tune of $1.2 million.
Some areas, including jail operations and the records bureau, already are too pared down to be cut, the sheriff-elect said.
"There is going to be some pain felt all the way around," said interim administrator Walter Hornsby. "(City department heads) have been told to go back, analyze their budgets, determine where the least interruption in services will be and what the least painful cuts will be as far as getting their job accomplished."
Here is a breakdown of some relevant numbers concerning the city's 2001 budget and the Richmond County Sheriff's Department:
(Based on U.S. Department of Justice's suggested ratio: 2.57 officers per 1,000 people)
Source: Augusta government and Richmond County Sheriff's Department
Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.