Stockbridge police impasse could go to mediation

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

A new deal between Henry County and Stockbridge regarding police services in the city will be reached within the next three weeks or it will go to mediation.

The Board of Commissioners voted July 7 to extend the current agreement to Aug. 4 if necessary. Both sides still appeared to be far apart on the terms of the next deal, judging by the discussion at that meeting.

Interim county manager Cheri Hobson-Matthews recommended a three-year agreement beginning in January with the city paying $900,000 per year in equal quarterly installments. She said it was in the form of a resolution that could be voted on immediately. The city has been paying $500,000 per year and the county was looking to raise it to as much as $2 million at one point.

As each of the past two extensions have been passed on the day the agreement was set to expire, there were concerns about what would happen to police services should that happen. County attorney Patrick Jaugstetter assured the board that the police would be able to do their jobs regardless, as they are still authorized to make arrests if they witness crimes. He suggested that the main change might be in the area of tickets and citations, which would go to Henry County State Court instead of being handled in the city.

Buddy Welch, who represents Stockbridge in the negotiations, stated that the law requires all such citations to remain in the city’s court and any action by the county to divert them to State Court would lead to “appropriate legal action.” He added that mediation is required by law if no agreement is reached, and Stockbridge expects full and complete police services in the meantime.

Welch addressed the board along with Stockbridge city manager Michael Harris, and both said they had asked repeatedly for documentation to support the drastically higher fees for police protection. As for the $900,000-per-year proposal Matthews made at the meeting, Harris said he had not seen it.

“If you have numbers to support it, we’ll look at it,” Welch said. “But to simply dictate it is not right. How would you feel if Stockbridge came in here and told you what to do? It’s not how you do business.”

Harris and Welch said that any new agreement would have to extend at least into the next SPLOST period, giving the city time to lay the groundwork for its own police department should that become necessary.

The previous Stockbridge administration took significant steps in planning the establishment of its own police department, but those plans were shelved when a new mayor and two new city council members took office at the beginning of 2014. Mayor Tim Thompson and some council members have said the issue deserves another look but extensive input from citizens is needed before proceeding. All have agreed that starting a police department in Stockbridge would cost several million dollars and likely require a tax increase.

But Welch reminded the commissioners that Stockbridge taxpayers are also county taxpayers, and the city is entitled to know why the county thinks the cost should go up so much.

“You have been elected to protect them,” said Welch, who added that he has been negotiating these service delivery agreements on behalf of cities in Henry County for 46 years and has reached a fair agreement with every commission during that time, saving the taxpayers a great deal of money in the process.

Harris suggested that the two sides have made “tremendous strides” and are not far from a resolution.

Commissioner Bruce Holmes, whose district includes a portion of Stockbridge, said he thought the proposal on the table was a “win” for the county’s largest city, and he thinks its leaders should move forward now and start planning to have its own police department in three years.

“This is a great deal for the city,” said Holmes. “I think we are prepared to vote on this today and put the ball in your court on the best way to protect the citizens.”

In answering commissioners’ concerns about what could happen should the agreement expire, Jaugstetter said that state law requires an agreement to be in place but police can do their jobs wherever they see fit.

“There is no real limitation on where a police officer is a police officer,” he said. “From a practical everyday standpoint, there will not be a shutdown of police services. I don’t see a situation where that would happen.”

“But you are adopting a resolution that does just that,” Welch countered.

Welch asked the board to amend the resolution on the table and keep the existing contract in full force until the first commission in August, with no effort being made by the county to divert anything to State Court. He also asked that county staff be directed to provide specific documentation to justify the request for $900,000 per year - an offer he said was not acceptable to the city.

“If you adopt this resolution without these amendments, it will require us to take action we don’t want to take,” he said. “But we will not be bullied. Let’s stop arguing, do something right and move on.”

Jaugstetter recommended modifying the resolution to include Welch’s requests and that the two attorneys be allowed to schedule a mediation session as soon as possible if an agreement cannot be reached.

Commissioner Blake Prince, who represents all of Stockbridge not in Holmes’ district, said he understood that Solicitor Trea Pipkin had indicated his office could handle the extra work in State Court temporarily if necessary should some or all of the city’s court cases be moved there.

“I would suggest he read the law before making any such proposal in writing to this board,” replied Welch. “I doubt a Superior Court judge would allow it.”

Henry County Police Chief Keith Nichols assured the board that his personnel would stay in the city regardless of what happens. “My people up there have servants’ hearts,” he said.

Nichols said he has explained to Stockbridge officials three different times what his department provides in the city. He said that 15 percent of all calls coming to his department are from Stockbridge, which has a current annual budget of $18 million, and he used that percentage in part to arrive at some of the previous figures supported by the county.

Welch said that they city spent almost $2.5 million on the current Stockbridge precinct building for which the county pays $1 per year to use, and he asserted that city resident have been paying extra for other services compared to what residents in the unincorporated county pays. Stockbridge is the only city in Henry County without its own police department.

Stockbridge officials have also reached out to Sheriff Keith McBrayer in recent months to get an idea of what it would take for his office to fill the void should the HCPD leave, and it was stated that the startup cost for McBrayer’s department to provide full service would be about $4.3 million.

Harris stressed that the level of service provided by the county has never been an issue. “The city has always been thrilled with that,” he said.

Board chairman Tommy Smith suggested that someone move to revise the resolution to include what both parties want, and if no agreement is reached by Aug. 4 the matter go automatically to mediation. Welch and Jaugstetter agreed that was the best course of action.

Holmes moved to officially extend the $900,000 offer with the other conditions in place, giving Stockbridge four weeks to agree and with mediation details in place if necessary. The HCPD was also directed to devise a plan to continue service if no agreement was in place. That motion was approved.