Negotiations continue for Stockbridge police services

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Stockbridge residents last week came within less than three hours of having no official police services.

The Henry County Board of Commissioners voted at its June 16 regular meeting to extend the deadline once again for authorizing an intergovernmental agreement regarding police services. The vote came after 9 p.m. with the agreement set to expire that night at 11:59.

The motion and second to approve the latest extension came reluctantly from commissioners Bruce Holmes and Blake Prince, in whose districts Stockbridge sits. Both Holmes and Prince expressed their frustration at the ongoing negotiations and the city’s apparent unwillingness to reach a deal that is acceptable to both parties.

Currently the issue is how much Stockbridge should pay for the Henry County Police Department to handle policing in the city, and the numbers offered by the city and the county are far apart, according to county officials.

“I did not agree in any way” with the numbers most recently proposed by the city, Prince said, adding that he cannot even get the mayor and City Council in Stockbridge to talk to him about the issue.

The consensus of the board, after hearing input from interim county manager Cheri Hobson-Matthews and county attorney Patrick Jaugstetter, was to let the negotiations continue at the staff level, spearheaded by Matthews and Stockbridge city manager Michael Harris.

“We still haven’t come up with a figure to make both parties happy,” said Matthews at the BOC meeting.

Jaugstetter, who said the county would have “limited jurisdiction within the city without an agreement,” said that the board could extend it once more and perhaps get the city to vote on a final agreement at its next council meeting.

“They have made a proposal, and we have provided them some numbers,” said Jaugstetter. “They've worked with us; they have not been unresponsive or uncooperative. Cheri and her counterpart have started a dialogue that will be more productive.”

Chairman Tommy Smith said the board could amend the agenda to vote on the issue that night, but he wondered if the county would be “in the same boat” again July 7.

Prince said he was told that the city approached Sheriff Keith McBrayer about a possible arrangement for police services. According to state law the sheriff is ultimately responsible for law enforcement in any county, although McBrayer has not spoken publicly about this issue at all.

“The knee-jerk reaction is that the sheriff can do it, but I don’t think he is equipped right now to do it or if he has the patrol capacity,” said Jaugstetter. “The statute says there must be a written agreement between the city and sheriff and the Board of Commissioners must approve it. We haven’t seen anything like that.”

Jaugstetter added that there is no law in place preventing either the Sheriff’s Office or the HCPD from responding to calls in Stockbridge regardless of the status of the agreement. The biggest potential problem lies in typical investigative processes like evidence gathering and search warrants, he said, and the District Attorney’s office and Solicitor General’s office have both expressed concerns about the agreement because of that.

Prince made it clear at the meeting that he was not in favor of extending the current contract, and he suggested the city be prepared with a contingency.

“I don't see this ending,” said Prince. “We keep extending and getting these numbers ... I don't know if we're going to come to a resolution.”

Holmes concurred with that assessment.

“We've been doing this seven months. I'm tired of going back and forth,” said Holmes. “If they come up with a serious proposal, I wouldn't mind coming back with a special called meeting, but I'm not supporting extending the agreement.”

While Matthews didn’t give specific numbers at the meeting, she said her understanding was that HCPD chief Keith Nichols looked at the percentage of total calls that come from Stockbridge, which is about 15 percent, and used that percentage based on the total police budget to arrive at the county’s numbers.

“Stockbridge has a difference of opinion,” said Matthews.

When contacted by the Times last week, Harris issued a statement containing the city’s opinion and the financial terms being discussed.

“The City of Stockbridge and Henry County are in the process of renegotiating their long-standing agreement for police coverage for residents of Stockbridge,” he wrote. “The Henry County Police Department has provided coverage for the City of Stockbridge since 1978. Stockbridge officials assure residents that there will be no lapse in police protection for the city as negotiations continue.”

Aside from paying a previously agreed-upon fee of $500,000 per year for police services, Harris stated that the city has provided additional funds that average $2,617,639 per year over the last five years, and the city also has provided a police precinct building valued at $253,876 annually.

The county has proposed raising the $500,000 fee to $2 million per year over the next ten years, according to Harris, while the city made a counterproposal of $750,000 per year and asked for supporting documentation from the county that would support any increase.

“We believe the County has understated the amount that the City of Stockbridge has been paying for police services,” Harris wrote. “In the meantime, we expect that Henry County will continue to provide police protection for our citizens as we negotiate in good faith.”