The next emergency

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Talk about timing.

Wednesday's massive citywide gang bust unfolded with a prescience few people might have realized.

Augustans now have a much clearer understanding of the level of crime and violence our officers face every day -- the gang activity, the drugs, the high-powered weaponry. The point cannot be pounded home hard enough that the Richmond County Sheriff's Office needs more manpower and more money to protect us from the sleazy criminal element that wants to seize ownership of our streets.

Against that backdrop, the Augusta Commission faces an important decision at its meeting Tuesday. City Administrator Fred Russell has proposed raising the millage rate to cover Sheriff Ronnie Strength's $2.5 million funding request that would give his deputies desperately needed raises. The rate rise also would fund cleanup projects.

The sticking point is that Russell proposes raising the millage to its capped maximum of 9.949 mills, which would raise about $8 million. "That's the only way I can fund what I hear people saying they want," he said.

But some commissioners are hesitant of asking too much of a community that has long been skeptical of the city government's actions. They surely don't want to be known as the kinds of leaders who seem to be there for the people only to cadge a handout.

In this case, however, an increased-funding argument can be an easy sell -- particularly in light of the high yield from the undercover sting dubbed Operation Augusta Ink. As of early Thursday, it has led to 71 arrests, and the seizure of more than 400 firearms, 54 pounds of marijuana and 1,196 grams of powder and crack cocaine.

Residents might find it hard to stomach a tax increase. But would they find it any easier to tolerate more break-ins and robberies because the sheriff's department is spread too thin to adequately protect all of Augusta's neighborhoods?

Everyone knows you can't tax your way toward fiscal responsibility. But city money should be found somewhere for the sheriff's department, at the very least.

Why not a smaller millage rise that would accommodate just the sheriff's $2.5 million needs? That would be just an increase of less than a mill. And who's to say there aren't creative ways to juggle the budget to make the rate hike even lower?

The money can be found -- and the Augusta Commission has enough financially savvy minds to investigate every possible source.

The money has to be found. Our officers are being lost to other communities that can pay them thousands more in higher salaries that are closer to what their valuable services are worth. That officer exodus is a drain Augusta is no longer equipped to withstand.

Community security is the gateway issue that sets the stage for all that Augusta wants to accomplish in stoking its economic engine and elevating its quality of life. If people feel the city isn't safe, there are few incentives strong enough to attract tourists, commerce, industry or permanent residents.

Our sheriff's department has stepped up innumerable times to prove its worth. Wednesday's bust is perhaps the most shining example.

The city should find the money our officers deserve.


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