Originally created 12/30/00

Deputy cuts conflict with deal



Two Augusta mayors signed separate agreements with the federal government that said the city would work to retain sheriff's deputies hired with federal dollars, even after the money ran out.

But a directive from the Augusta Commission to eliminate city staff positions through employee attrition is expected to make the city go back on its word. And it appears there will be no consequences for doing so.

A $3.6 million Community Oriented Policing Services grant from the federal government that has subsidized the salaries of 68 sheriff's deputies for the past three years will run out in 2001. Commissioners have said they can't afford to meet the sheriff's department's budget requests next year and instructed officials to work toward eliminating vacant positions.

In the sheriff's department, road patrol deputies - including the 68 hired with the help of the COPS grant - represent the bulk of employees and also have the highest turnover.

Mayor Bob Young co-signed a letter with Sheriff Charlie Webster in April 1999 that told the U.S. Department of Justice "it is the intent of the sheriff, with the approval of our county commissioners to continue local funding of these officers."

Officials say the city has held up its end of the bargain for the past three years by providing matching funds for the federal grant.

"I certainly feel the city has made a good-faith effort," Mr. Young said.

To balance the 2001 budget, every city department has been instructed to cut 3.5 percent of its expenses, which in the sheriff's department could affect as many as 41 road patrol deputy positions.

"The commission instructed that 3.5 percent be cut," Mr. Young said. "It's up to the sheriff to decide where those cuts would be made, and it could be reducing the number of deputies from the group of 68."

Former Mayor Larry Sconyers had signed a condition agreement with the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in 1997, when the city accepted the federal money. The contract said that at the conclusion of the grant, the city would make a "good-faith effort" to retain the newly created positions.

"It was known up front by all of us - these grants are usually this way," Sheriff-elect Ronnie Strength said. "They run out, and you have to pick up the cost."

The COPS office keeps a file on each grant recipient, said Jeff Thorson, a spokesman for the grant office.

"It is a federal justice requirement that they make a good-faith effort and retain those officers brought in through the COPS program," Mr. Thorson said.

But he could not name any federal consequences for failing to keep that promise.

"When you work with less, you have to do more," he said. "It just doesn't work - it's not what (supports) optimal performance levels."

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.