MARY ANN ANDERSON
The skies over Hazlehurst should be quiet for the next 75 days or so, said Mayor Bayne Stone and Airport Manager Cody White in last Thursday night’s regular monthly meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council.
Hazlehurst Municipal Airport’s aging runway and apron are getting completely refurbished in a $2.3 million project, courtesy of state and federal grants the city received specifically for airport renovations. That means all air traffic into and out of the usually busy airport are put on hold, beginning April 19 and continuing for about 2-1/2 months.
But the agenda item that commanded most of the meeting was Police Chief Ken Williams’ impassioned pleas for the city to raise salaries for his department and buy new patrol cars.
With the loss of several officers in the past year, either through resignation or termination, the police department is short-staffed, which has led to extensive overtime.
“I’ve got people who are tired,” said Williams in beginning the 35-minute discussion. “They are worn out. Their family lives are suffering.”
With hopes pinned on possible funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, Williams then asked for salary increases for patrol officers, not only for new hires, but also for those who have been employed for years. He also asked for four new police vehicles, with the department borrowing $200,000 for four years at 4.25 percent interest, to be paid in four annual payments in the ballpark of $58,000.
“That yearly payment will be deducted from my budget,” he explained in efforts to sway the council.
Williams and Ward 4 Councilman John Bloodworth, who is the liaison between the city and police department, said they could get the cars almost immediately from Phil Brannen Ford in Perry, a dealership that specializes in outfitting law enforcement vehicles, with full payment not due until June 30, which leaves plenty of time to secure the bank loan.
But then Stone put the brakes on Williams’ request, suggesting to him to wait until the 2021-22 budget process to make the decisions. That’s when Ward 1 Councilman Dywane Johnson reminded the council that in the past, police cars were to be replaced every two years. But Williams countered that between the costs of new vehicles and the amount of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) his department gets, the money isn’t enough to make the two-year replacements.
Stone was careful to say that Williams’ salary requests weren’t unreasonable, adding that all city employees deserve more money. He then recommended approaching the issues in a “businesslike manner at budget time” that will take place in the next few weeks.
Bloodworth reminded Stone that the police department is understaffed and that quality-trained officers need to be recruited, but that Hazlehurst doesn’t have an “attractive means” of bringing qualified officers to the city because of salary issues.
Stone didn’t budge. He stated that until the budget is balanced, the police department could work something out for more hires.
“We’re right here at the end of the budget year,” Stone explained. “We’re working on a new budget, and for us to bite this not even knowing where the money is coming from? You don’t do a budget that way.”
Williams pointed out that he could easily hire more officers for what he is paying in overtime to his current staff.
Bloodworth called it a “no-brainer” to hire more officers and buy the additional cars, saying, “We’re talking about public safety and keeping the peace and order in this community.
That’s when he made the first motion of that agenda item for the increases in salaries and to purchase the cars. Ward 3 Councilwoman Diane Leggett, who attended the meeting by telephone conference, seconded the motion.
Stone again held his ground, saying that he didn’t think the city should do either when working on new budgets was so close.
Ward 2 Councilman John Ramay echoed Stone, “We can easily study this through our budgetary methods and come up with answers. The council can do that, but we need more time.”
When Johnson questioned the need for four new cars at once, Bloodworth conceded that buying two cars would be a start before imploring, “Please work with us. Help us help the community.”
Stone said that the motion by Bloodworth was on the floor to increase salaries and purchase the vehicles, but then just before the vote Bloodworth suggested separating the two items. The council then unanimously passed that motion to split them before quickly passing another in a 5-0 vote to raise the minimum hourly salary of police officers to $18 with a cap of $22.
In quick succession came the third motion to buy the vehicles, but it failed with Bloodworth and Leggett voting for the measure and Johnson, Ramay and Stone against it.
“I don’t think we’ve denied it,” Stone once again reiterated. “We’ll try to work it into the budget.”
In other action during Monday night’s workshop, with Johnson absent, the council ….
…. approved the intergovernmental contract for a 3-year period between the City of Hazlehurst and Jeff Davis County for the Jeff Davis County Board of Elections and Registrars to continue administering city elections as it has done for the past few years.
…. after hearing from Chris McEachin of the Water Department, renewed a lease with Caterpillar Financial for a backhoe and jackhammer.
…. heard an update from Stone on the opening of the Georgia State Patrol station on U.S. Highway 341 South, informing the council that beginning this week it will be deep cleaned followed by the move-in of furniture.
…. after meeting in closed session to discuss personnel, returned to regular session with no action taken.
In other action during Thursday’s regular session, the council ….
…. formally denied a request by Olin Wooten to pay a claim in excess of $9,000 for damages that occurred at one of his rental houses. Wooten’s insurance company had also previously denied the claim.
…. adopted a resolution for Southern Civil LLC of Townsend to build a new well at Buddy Spann Park, a move that will improve fire suppression services in that area.
…. after hearing a request from McEachin for funding for a new vacuum truck, Stone asked him to put it in the budget for 2021-22.
…. at the request of Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis Fire-Rescue Chief Charles Wasdin, approved $1,600 to fund concrete work at Larry Anthony Training Center at the Pat Dixon Road station.
…. approved expenses for Wasdin to attend the annual conference of Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs in Biloxi, Miss., from June 22-25; and for O.P. Hall and Mark Durden of the Water Department to attend the annual conference of the Georgia Rural Water Association at Jekyll Island from May 11-13.
…. approved March’s departmental reports, water and sewer adjustments, and check register for bills previously paid.
…. in Mayor and Council’s Comments, authorized Stone and City Clerk Vernice Thompson to sign a proclamation declaring May 2-8 as the 52nd annual Professional Municipal Clerk’s Week, an event sponsored by the International Institute of Municipal Clerks.