Bulloch County needs more deputies, more EMS staff, more firefighters and more money, according to county public safety leaders who spoke to Bulloch County commissioners during a lunchtime workshop Tuesday.
Chief Deputy Jared Akins and Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn each shared lists of needs with commissioners, asking for action regarding a suggested master plan that will provide for needs over the next several years as the county continues to grow.
Population growth is the reason the county's public safety departments are challenged. While there are current needs, future growth will increase those.
"We understand there is only so much money in the pot, and you have to prioritize," Akins told commissioners.
Since 2000, Bulloch County has seen an increase in population by 18,000 people, he said. According to the United States Census Bureau, Bulloch County had a population of 71,214 in 2013.
With that growth, arrests and calls for service are up, but response time is down because there aren't enough deputies to adequately handle the calls, Akins said.
Since 2013, Bulloch County deputies have seen an increase in annual arrests by 500, and in calls for service by 600. At any one time, there are only six deputies on call per shift, and when someone calls in sick or has time off for other reasons, the number of deputies available is unacceptably low, he said.
Wynn said Bulloch County EMS, fire department and other public safety departments face the same problems. The county has nine ambulances, but one will be retired soon. Even with the remaining eight, the department only has the means to staff three ambulances at a time, he said.
"The growth in the county impacts us, too," Wynn said.
The economy has led to a decrease in volunteer firefighters because of people being unable to devote the time because of family and job obligations, he said. The number of Bulloch's volunteer firefighters has shrunk from 161 in 2012 to 67 today — a 58 percent decline in just over two years. Wynn said the decrease isn't just local; the trend is nationwide.
There is also a need for full-time firefighters, as well as staff in other departments such as EMS, he said.
EMS calls have increased from 7,384 in 2012 to 8,200 last year. The Affordable Care Act has limited part-time hours, and with only 20 full-time and 20 part-time employees, response time is affected, Wynn said.
When Georgia Southern University has a ball game or there is another event drawing visitors to the county, "the population surpasses 100,000" people. With current resources, there is only one ambulance available for every 24,000 people, he said.
Three of the current ambulances need replacing, and the three most recently purchased have racked up about 60,000 miles apiece, Wynn said.
Both he and Akins said competitive salaries led to loss of employees.
A state survey in 2002 suggested Bulloch County needed 240 employees at the sheriff's department and jail. There are currently 120 employees, Akins said.
Bulloch County's starting pay isn't competitive with other agencies, and new hires move on to better-paying positions after Bulloch County has absorbed the expense of training and equipment, he said.
Both the Effingham County Sheriff's Office and the Statesboro Police Department offer about $1.40 more an hour, leading to a "revolving door" that costs the county money.
Bulloch County Sheriff Lynn Anderson echoed those concern.
"We don't want to tell people we don't have anybody to respond" to calls, he said. "I think we've been really lucky for really long, and I think we've done well with what we have."
Aside from calls for service, the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office also provides court security, jail staff, transport staff and investigators.
Commissioners agreed that population growth has caused greater needs but had no easy solutions for the problem.
"Your needs are real. We recognize that," said Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil. "We have to find ways to accommodate."
One thing he would like to see is a decrease in non-emergency calls from citizens. Nevil referred to a recent incident in which deputies were called to a home because a mother said her son argued with her and refused to fold socks and put them away. Calls like that take deputies from being available for true emergencies, he said.
"Our citizens can help us with these challenges by taking care of (minor problems) themselves," Nevil said. "They can be more responsible and not call 911 when they have the hiccups."
Commissioners appeared reluctant to mention one solution.
"Nobody wants to raise taxes, but I don't know where the money will come from," said Commissioner Roy Thompson.
"We're not saying at this point we'll have to raise taxes," said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch. "We'll think about it rationally and move forward as best we can."
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.