The mayor of Register wants to reduce and replace the town’s current police department, citing costs that exceed income, but council members disagree, and local business owners just want what they view as excessive policing to stop.
With a population of 173, Register ranks second per capita in the state for raking in revenue from traffic tickets and fines, according to a survey by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Some call the town a speed trap and say the Register Police Department causes problems for business owners and visitors, but others defend the department, claiming the saturation of police (two full time and two part time) officers helps keep the small town safe.
Register Mayor John Williams said Monday he believes the town needs a “different, smaller police department.”
In October, town council members voted to reduce police hours to save money, but according to minutes from a Nov. 10 meeting, Williams reversed the action after speaking to a city attorney and reinstated the full time hours – 40 hours a week for Police Chief Tom Kile and his son Officer Terry Kile, and rehiring officers Bobby Ivey and David Ellis for 16 hours a week.
He said he did so upon advice from city attorney Scott Brannen, as well as to bring Ivey back on the force, because “he is an asset to the town.”
But during the council’s Dec. 15 meeting, the cuts were reinstated, according to Councilman Kevin Boyd.
During the November meeting, Williams approached the council with a suggestion to suspend the police department until council members decided whether to retain the department in its current form, or scale back and reduce the department size.
He plans to revisit the issue during an upcoming meeting on Tuesday.
“Register cannot afford this police department,” he said Monday.
He said the current department, led by Chief Tom Kile, takes in just enough revenue to bump the city into a higher bracket regarding the cost of accounting and state add-ons, but not enough to cover expenses, he said, adding that accounting costs that once were $1,500 annually are now $8,500.
Profit and loss
The town’s Profit and Loss statements for 2014 showed the town was more than $93,000 in debt. Council members Boyd and Barbara Rushing disputed the records, stating “shoddy bookkeeping” was the reason the document showed an erroneous deficit. The town hired a consultant last month to help iron out mistakes and questions regarding Register’s finances.
Williams said bookkeeping is not why the town has money issues. “It is not a bookkeeping problem,” he said. “I think it is a police department problem.”
“Yes, our financial statements clearly indicate that (Register can afford a police department) and the most recent audit of the town’s books support this statement,” he said. “Having said that, greater efficiencies are possible and I expect that the next council will seek to streamline the department in such a way as to further increase the value that the department delivers.”
Aside from “revenues sending us into another dimension” as to expenses, the police department spends more than it should, Williams said. Grants do not cover the complete cost of tag readers and new police cars.
“We can’t take enough money in to pay the bills,” he said. “We’re fixing to be broke.”
The council voted in November to use the town’s money market accounts to cover December police payroll if needed. Register Town Clerk Rhonda Deloach confirmed Wednesday the town borrowed $500 from the account to make payroll this week.
Williams said the police department has borrowed from money market and general funds in the past to make payroll, but Rushing disputed that.
“I know there's a lot of court cost in the processing of fines. As of the last payroll, no money was owed to the money market account or general fund,” she said. “The city clerk thought we were short but the electronic deposits had not been viewed. Once the deposits were accessed, payroll and add on fees were met with a surplus.”
According to research and reporting by the Journal-Constitution, in 2014, Register, population 173, collected $170,770 in police revenue, which translates into $787 per capita.
Other towns identified in the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s report include three in Screven County: Hiltonia, population 327, with a per capita revenue income from police of $363; Oliver, population 287, with a per capita revenue income from police of $327; and Rocky Ford, population 137, with a per capita police revenue income of $308.
Register trails only Jonesboro, which led the list at $820 per capita.
Williams said Register police officers did not write any tickets between Dec. 12 and Dec. 23, adding that it was unusual for the department to not write a significant amount of tickets each week, and that if tickets had been issued, the loan from the money market account may not have been necessary.
When questioned Wednesday about the low number of tickets during that time period, Chief Tom Kile said could not immediately answer. He asked to call the Statesboro Herald back with the answers after he was able to review the issue at the town hall.
When he called the Statesboro Herald back several minutes later, Kile said six tickets were written during that two-week period. In comparison, during the month of December 2014, 66 tickets were issued for the entire month.
Kile said the reason for the low amount of tickets, which affects revenue, was because Terry Kile was out for two weeks for health reasons and neither the chief nor the other two officers could compensate for Terry Kile’s absence due to the hourly cutback.
“Terry is our main ticket-writer,” he said.
Williams said further cuts regarding police expenses included stopping Tom Kile from using the town’s patrol car to go back and forth from home to work.
“He put 50,000 miles on the new patrol car,” he said. Now that Kile uses his own vehicle to travel back and forth to work, “It is saving the town $600 a month in gas.”
He also said the department spends too much on unnecessary items.
“We are SWAT team equipped.”
Register and Rocky Ford
Williams said the town would not be able to sustain a police department at the rate it is going.
“I am concerned Register may follow the path of Rocky Ford,” he said.
Rocky Ford is a small town in Screven County, of comparable size to Register. The town is currently under FBI investigation regarding unpaid state fines and missing funds.
Tom Kile was employed as a police officer there when the investigation began, working under supervision of his brother, Chief Pat Kile.
Pat Kile is also chief of the Oliver Police Department in Screven County. Both Rocky Ford and Oliver are mentioned in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s speed trap reports.
Rocky Ford still faces financial issues including the lack of funds to repair badly damaged streets filled with potholes.
Council members defend police
While Williams is pulling for a reduction in police enforcement, Boyd and Rushing say the majority of council members believe the opposite.
“We had 22 felony arrests for drugs and two burglaries. Crime and drugs touch us all. Being a small town doesn't change that,” Rushing said.
“I reason that since the current police department has provided tremendous value to the people of Register, we should keep it,” Boyd said. “Many people have commented that when they pass through Register that they make sure to do so lawfully and we have developed a reputation as a place where ridged enforcement of our safety standards may be expected. This is a good thing and is a standard that all other communities should seek to emulate.”
He defended the town’s reputation as a speed trap and said town residents do not want lawbreakers traveling through the area.
“I suppose we could do away with our enforcement and let people drive through here at 90 miles per hour, run our stop signs and crash into our houses with their cars, manufacture meth mere yards away from our homes and children, sell drugs, drive drunk to the point that they pass out and run their trucks off the road into our yards, beat their wives, blast their car stereos, and drive unlicensed and uninsured,’ he said Tuesday. “I don’t want to live in a community like that though. The high standard that our enforcement creates and the reputation that goes along with it, encourages those who would do those things to do them elsewhere. I have heard that some people choose to bypass our community because they don’t like our high standards, I offer that this is a clear demonstration that our enforcement is working. Criminals avoid us. “
Business owners complain
Register business owners do not agree, however, claiming the town’s overly aggressive police department causes people to shun the town and they are losing business.
Terry Gentry owned the Big Pig Barbecue restaurant, a business he said started out thriving until road blocks in front of his eatery became frequent.
“They pull over peanut haulers to check for weight,” he said. “They held radar checks, pulled people over in a three-way roadblock at my parking lot. People will tell you ‘I don’t come through Register’ because of the police.”
He said his thriving business dwindled and he is now out of business due to the police. “It’s sad, what they have done to the people of Register.”
Zack Crafton, manager of The County Line Package Shop in Pulaski, a community a few miles from Register, said many of their customers must drive through Register on Hwy. 46 in order to reach the store.
The package shop has a sign inside the building warning customers about the intense police presence in Register. Many people bypass the town, taking backroads to reach the store, according to Williams.
“We put up signs two years ago,” Crafton said. “It has always been kind of an issue. We hear constant complaints from people.”
Employees see the police on patrol, waiting for possible speeders or lawbreakers, on their way to work and they “are still there when they go home,” he said. “It seems like overkill for a town that size. People choose not to come here because of that.”
Many customers complain they are stopped for petty reasons such as tag light violations or “they can’t read small motorcycle tags with the tag reader,” he said. “We get 10-20 complaints weekly. There are a lot of good hardworking people who come here who are not criminals.”
Kenny Patel, manager of The Store at Register, the town’s only convenience store, said the Register police department’s high volume of stopping drivers “has had a big effect on my business. Nobody is coming here. Everybody knows about the police. They do too many road blocks.”
He said his business has dropped by $15,000 -$20,000 monthly because of increased police presence and the town’s reputation as a speed trap.
“Nobody stops to buy beer. I have talked to the mayor about this. I don’t have a hand in it – it is up to the council.”
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.