Originally created 11/28/02

Small-town police force sees growth with highway



PENDERGRASS, Ga. - For the time being, Rob Russell is a one-man police force in Pendergrass, a tiny Jackson County town northwest of Athens.

From his office window in the old train depot, he watches over the town's only handicapped parking space, and he can see the post office and library, the only government buildings that keep regular hours.

The town might not have much going on, just 105 people voted in the recent general election, according to vote totals taped to the inside of one of the depot's windows, but it has one thing that screams for a police force: a new highway.

By the time the police department begins to patrol the streets of Pendergrass at the first of the year, Chief Russell will have at least one other officer to help him protect and serve the town's 485 residents. Together, they'll work 100 hours a week patrolling the 25 miles of road in the city.

For out-of-towners just passing through Pendergrass, the new police force means another speed-limit enforcer on U.S. Highway 129 between Athens and Gainesville. Crews are finishing up two segments of a four-lane bypass that will skirt Pendergrass and Jefferson, allowing commuters to keep moving, rather than slowing for the narrow streets and pedestrian hazards of the two towns.

Developing a police department is a major undertaking for Pendergrass, a four-square-mile town with little more than a handful of businesses, a depot/city hall, a volunteer fire house, a post office and a one-room library.

The city spent $125,000 of last year's budget, mostly money collected in fees for business and beer licenses.

"I didn't know how much was involved (in creating a police department)," Mayor Monk Tolbert acknowledged.

First, officers can't enforce laws that aren't on the books, so the city council had to draft and approve a code of ordinances. Then, the city has to have some way to punish the people who break the laws, so leaders had to develop a municipal court. City fathers intend to hire a court clerk by the end of the year, according to Chief Russell. Next year's budget will be "considerably more," Mr. Tolbert said.

Plans for a city police department began a few years ago when Mr. Tolbert's son, Mark, was mayor.

City leaders knew the U.S. 129 bypass would encourage long-distance travelers to speed through the city, especially on certain autumn Saturdays, when a steady parade of fan-packed cars cuts through Pendergrass to get from Gainesville to Athens for University of Georgia football games.

Before the bypass opened, game days brought a "mess" of traffic to downtown Pendergrass, Chief Russell said.

"We had traffic backed up from the Hall County line to Athens," he said.

The grant that will fund 75 percent of the police department's payroll for the first few years is aimed at burglary prevention, Chief Russell said.

"We never, ever, ever want a reputation as a speed trap," he said.

Instead, the chief said, he wants a close connection with the people who live or work in Pendergrass; he wants to supplement the stretched resources of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department so that Pendergrass residents have increased law enforcement.

"We won't be in the office much. You go out there. You turn your radio off and roll your window down and listen," he explained.

Mr. Tolbert said he expects some people will accuse the city of trying to generate revenue from the police force.

"I've already been advised to take my phone of the hook the day we start patrolling," he said.

"We won't be in the office much. You go out there. You turn your radio off and roll your window down and listen." - Rob Russell, lone police office patrolling the small town of Pendergrass, Ga.