MARY ANN ANDERSON
Hiring a new administrative captain for the Hazlehurst Police Department, a specific item on the agenda for last Thursday night’s regular monthly meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council, didn’t come without its challenges and bringing other departmental issues to the forefront.
When Police Chief Ken Williams addressed the council on the agenda item, he first asked for a jump in the starting salary from $15 to $18 an hour for police officers who are POST-certified. POST is short for Peace Officer Standards and Training.
“The last time they got a raise, Tommy Purser was still on the council,” Williams said. Purser last served on the city council in 2017.
Williams told the council while the city offers a good benefits package that includes insurance and retirement, his department must compete with the salaries of other law enforcement agencies from surrounding communities of Lumber City, Telfair County, Baxley, Coffee County and McRae.
“What I have learned is it all depends on the incentives we can offer,” he said. “I know that we are strapped, and I know the city doesn’t have a lot of money.”
In outlining his proposal to the council, Williams also said he would offer incentive bonuses to current officers for new hires they recommend and evaluate current officers for raises, all with the help of an administrative captain he hopes to hire and who would also help update and write policies and procedures. He added that his department’s policies, with the exception of use of force, have not been updated since 2007 when Wayne Fountain was mayor.
“Times have changed since then,” he said. “You have to constantly update policy to keep up with everything else.”
After listening to Williams’ lengthy presentation, Ward 4 Councilman John Bloodworth then made a motion to “do what the chief asked,” with Ward 3’s Diane Leggett seconding. The full motion was to include, among other items, upping starting salaries, allowing bonuses and hiring the administrative captain. The captain, who was not named, is from Blackshear.
Mayor Bayne Stone said that he had spoken with Jeff Davis County Sheriff Preston Bohannon, who said that the hourly rates of most of his deputies fall between $15 and $16 an hour. Most Hazlehurst patrol officers, Stone said, are making $17 an hour. He asked the council to clarify that the motion would bring those officers up to $18 an hour.
“I’m asking for that,” Williams told Stone. “That’s the object.”
Because the original agenda item was to discuss hiring the captain, Stone then asked the council to kill Bloodworth’s original motion since most of what Williams covered was not on the agenda and was written as “Discuss Police Department & Administrative Captain.” After a somewhat confusing vote, the motion was killed with Bloodworth asking for a new one “to do what’s on the agenda, to hire the administrative captain.”
That’s when Ward 2 Councilman John Ramay said that while he would support hiring the captain, he would not support furnishing a vehicle for him to drive each day from Blackshear, which was part of Williams’s plan. Ramay emphatically stated that the captain should drive to Hazlehurst in his personal car just as “any businessman” would do.
Stone then stated that he had “agonized” over the decision to hire the captain. He then pointed out that he didn’t have police experience and would have to rely on the judgment of Williams and Bloodworth, both of whom have extensive law enforcement experience. Stone added that he was committed to helping Williams and Bloodworth, ending with his caveat, “I want the record to reflect that it is against my better judgment, because I don’t have police experience, that I’m going to yield to them.”
The final vote to hire the Blackshear police captain was 4-1, with Ramay voting nay.
Following that lengthy discussion, the council also heard Stone outline recommendations from the Georgia Department of Transportation to make the city’s roundabouts in the school zones, particularly the one at Pat Dixon Road and Collins Street, safer and more functional.
Among other items GDOT advised is to include thermoplastic striping at all entrances to the roundabout and from all four directions. While thermoplastic striping, which uses glass beads in its material, is expensive, it is more reflective and visible at night than regular striping. The state, Stone added, will also provide additional signage. The mayor also said the city will work with Joey Hiers of J. Hiers Company in Baxley and James Benjamin of Benjamin Concrete Finishing of Hazlehurst to complete the work.
“I’ll be glad to get that headache behind us,” Stone said of reworking the roundabout that has been the scene of myriad accidents.
The council also heard from City Attorney Ken W. Smith, who outlined refinancing protocol for the original construction loan for the Georgia State Patrol office on U.S. Highway 341 that will open later this year. Smith also gave the first readings of two ordinances, originally incorrectly passed as resolutions in earlier meetings, that relate to allowing off-premises alcohol sales at authorized catered events. The second readings are set for the March regular meeting.
Smith and Stone also updated the council on efforts to allow package stores within city limits. Stone said that “a good bit of footwork needs to be done” before the matter is put to the vote, including a citizen of Hazlehurst getting a petition circulating to gather signatures of 35 percent of the city’s registered voters to say yes to the idea. The Board of Registrars must then certify the signatures before the referendum is put on the ballot.
“There’s not a simple way to do it,” Stone said before explaining that the city is losing about $300,000 a year in tax revenue to neighboring cities and counties that already allow package sales. “We need that tax money, and we need it bad. We have to get busy and do it.”
After approving January’s water and sewer adjustments, departmental reports and paid bills, and with no additional citizen’s, mayor’s or councilmen’s comments, the 45-minute meeting adjourned.