BROOKLET — City Council decided not to dissolve the town's police department after all, voting Thursday night to keep the 106-year-old agency as it is.
Facing a crowd of more than 100 citizens, council members heard a presentation by the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office regarding a proposal for it to handle law enforcement needs in Brooklet — a proposal solicited by council members who have stated they were looking into the change as a cost-saving measure.
Citizens attending the meeting expressed an overwhelming objection to dissolving the police department, airing concerns over reduced law enforcement coverage and longer response times.
Bulloch County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Jared Akins outlined the proposal, with input from Sheriff Lynn Anderson, as citizens and council members listened.
The proposal for the sheriff's office would provide two deputies assigned to the town, not to be patrolling elsewhere in the county, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., unless an incident required overtime, Akins said.
The proposal included jail expenses and other services for which municipalities usually pay, and the all-inclusive cost to the city of Brooklet would have been $180,376, he said.
The current annual budget for the Brooklet Police Department is $236,510, according to records provided by the city of Brooklet City Hall.
While the proposal cost is substantially below the current police budget, Brooklet residents questioned the equality of coverage. Brooklet police officers are on duty well past midnight, while deputies assigned to Brooklet through the proposal would be off duty at 7 p.m.
"There's a difference in hours," Akins said. "I'm not going to lie to you."
Akins said four deputies would need to be assigned to Brooklet in order to match the current coverage by Chief Mike Buchan, two other full-time officers and six part-time officers. That would approximately double the cost of the proposal, resulting in a cost that is about $124,000 over the town's current budget, he said.
Brooklet Mayor William Hendrix told the crowd the proposal was sought out by council members as a possible money-saving measure, adding that the police department has the largest budget in the city. Buchan told council members and citizens that he has been "under budget" every year he has served as chief.
When asked, Akins and Anderson said the council approached them in January about the proposal. Questions by citizens asking why the council acted without public discussion or public vote were unanswered.
When an unidentified citizen called out a question about which councilman first approached the subject regarding dissolving the police department, Hendrix first refused to answer, stating the matter had been publicized in the Statesboro Herald as well as on a Facebook page, "Support Brooklet Police," founded by Brooklet resident Kim Ellerbee.
However, when a reporter asked the question again, stating the matter is of public interest, Hendrix said a former finance manager broached the topic during a budget meeting, and said it was he (Hendrix) who first contacted the sheriff's department about a proposal.
Hendrix declined to comment on a possible personal conflict between Buchan and Councilman Russell Davis, who did not attend the meeting.
A letter by citizen Gilbert Howard, which Ellerbee sent to the state Attorney General's office and shared on the "Support Brooklet Police" Facebook page, cited allegations that Davis, who was then Brooklet's police committee head, became angry over a ticket given to a relative. Hendrix told the reporter to ask Davis about the matter, but Davis has not returned phone calls seeking comment about the Brooklet police issue.
Brooklet City Clerk Lori Phillips told the Statesboro Herald on Wednesday that Davis did not allow his cellphone number to be released. Davis was out of state on business matters, Hendrix said.
Both Akins and Anderson made it clear to residents that current services by the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office in Brooklet will continue regardless of whether the proposal was accepted.
"You are still Bulloch County citizens," Anderson said. "We're not trying to come take over Brooklet. We were asked for a proposal and that is what we are giving."
After hearing passionate comments from citizens in support of keeping the police department, and seeing a show of hands by almost everyone in the room in support of the police department, Councilman Randy Newman made a motion to keep the department. The vote was unanimous by councilmen Newman, Jim Stanoff, Greg Schlierf and Tom McElwee.
After the vote, Ellerbee asked why Buchan was not allowed to drive his patrol car home, as he has always done before. Hendrix said there is no need for Buchan to have the patrol car when he is off duty, but Ellerbee argued that Buchan answers calls when needed even when he is off duty and that citizen safety depended on his access to a police vehicle.
When asked, Anderson said all his deputies drive their cars home so they have access in case they are needed to assist other deputies even if they are off duty. He said potential criminals seeing patrol cars in the area, even if parked at a deputy's home, would possibly be deterred from committing crimes if they knew law enforcement was in the area.
Hendrix then curtly asked Buchan whether he would be available for calls during the upcoming weekend.
"Not this weekend. I'm going fishing," Buchan answered, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Ellerbee and others suggested Buchan leave the patrol car with the city when he will be out of town or unavailable on his days off. Hendrix replied that Buchan would need a ride back home if he did so, and said the issue would be discussed in a future meeting.
The Brooklet City Council meets on the third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at Brooklet City Hall.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.