In a way, a dilemma faced by the Richmond County Sheriff's Office that could have resulted in dozens of layoffs has solved itself.
Sheriff Ronnie Strength says his department has met the Augusta Commission's edict to slash spending by 3.5 percent, or $1.2 million. Deputies leaving the department on their own, or being terminated, helped make it possible.
The required cuts, which the commission ordered for every city department, were the equivalent of 41 road deputy positions. The sheriff's only layoff was that of Chief Deputy Austin McLane in January. He also eliminated the chief deputy position he held before becoming sheriff, bringing the number of patrol jobs to be eliminated to 34.
According to Maj. E.J. Wilhelm, who oversees administrative services such as personnel and payroll, 10 deputies have been fired for policy and procedure violations since Jan. 1, when the new sheriff took office. In that same time, 24 employees have resigned.
Sheriff Strength said he lost many officers to other Georgia law enforcement agencies. He said rumblings concerning the budget problem that began last year caused uneasiness within the ranks, leading many to seek other jobs.
"We lost good officers because they were somewhat concerned how secure employment here was," Sheriff Strength said.
The 34 departures, however, were not from the same positions that will be dropped to meet the money mark.
Thirty-one slots in the department have been eliminated, including 24 in road patrol, three in investigations, two secretarial positions and two chief deputies, Maj. Wilhelm said. They came open through resignations, promotions, transfers and the retirement of a secretary. Some were vacant when a hiring freeze took effect in December.
The department is now taking applications for five jailer positions, where deputies are typically assigned when they first join the force. At least one position is open in narcotics investigations, but it will likely be filled from within, the major said.
Shrinking manpower wasn't the only way the budget was trimmed. The sheriff also ditched plans to purchase a $250,000 mobile command post. The trailer containing surveillance, radio and computer equipment would have allowed the department to establish a base of operations in times of crisis, such as hostage situations and weather disasters.
While he feels this will appease the commission, Sheriff Strength said he does not consider the problem solved. Now the department must tighten its belt, he said.
"We're still very concerned about taking that many deputies off the streets," he said. "We're just going to have to do more with less. We're going to have to work harder."
Richmond County Sheriff's Office departures since Jan. 1:
Reasons for terminations
Tested positive for cocaine
Arrested for DUI in another county
Used excessive force (struck a handcuffed suspect)
Sleeping on duty
Knowingly allowed an inmate to be booked under a false name
Had financial dealings with an inmate
Delivered an envelope to an inmate who was a relative
Became pen pals with an inmate
(2) Failed to turn in confiscated property to the property room
Source: Maj. E.J. Wilhelm, Richmond County Sheriff's Office
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.