GARLAND — After pleading with Sampson County officials to lower the cost of law enforcement services, town commissioners are going in another direction.
During a Tuesday night meeting, town commissioners voted 3-2 to begin a police department. Commissioners Judy Smith and S.J. Smith voted against the idea and wanted to stick with the Sampson County Sheriff’s Department. But their colleagues thought a contract near $113,000 was too steep.
“We’re not putting a price on safety,” Mayor Winifred Murphy said. “But when you look at your budget, you got to look at everything.”
Murphy added that the coverage is not solely dedicated to Garland when deputies have to travel out of the town limits for emergencies.
“It’s wherever they’re called,” Murphy said about the 12-hour coverage. “We were just asking the commissioners to help pay for that. It’s fully supported by the citizens in Garland and none of them (people outside the town limits) pay for those deputies.”
The proposed cost includes a $25,655 increase from the current cost of $87,144. Contracts have not changed in eight years when Garland and Roseboro police departments came to an end because of economic woes. The reason for the hike is a new employee pay plan, which caused county officials to examine salaries across the board.
Judy Smith said she thought they could go to county commissioners and petition for a lower cost by looking at the tax rate, but the goal was to make sure other towns was paying for the same coverage. She was disappointed with the outcome of the request, but changed her mind about ending the contract.
“Since then my phone has rang off the hook with citizens and with business owners,” Judy said about receiving calls regarding the termination of the contract.
And as a commissioner, she believes part of her job is to represent the residents of Garland.
“With that being said, I agree with Commissioner S.J., that I’m ready to try and work out a contract with the sheriff’s department again in lieu of getting our own police force.”
Judy Smith said it’s not going to be a quick process and could cost more than the sheriff’s contract, but she voiced her frustration as well.
“I was really angry that they didn’t listen to our request to get us a decrease,” she said. “We’re not the same. We’re not like Roseboro, we’re very different and we need to be looked at as an individual town and what our tax rate is.”
Town officials met with commissioners before the night meeting about logistics associated with starting a department. During a special meeting in May, Garland commissioners made a decision to not enter the contract and Commissioner Ralph Smith made a motion for Garland to handle its own law enforcement.
“I didn’t see the complicated aspects of doing our own police department,” he said. “I realize that it’s going to take time and we still have the sheriff’s department answering our calls, 24/7, like they always have.”
In the long run, Ralph Smith said he believes it’ll be better for the town. Murphy said it’s going to be a challenging process that includes getting a sworn officer and becoming connected with organizations such as the FBI, which may take six months.
“It’s a lot to consider,” Murphy said.
Prior to the decision, several residents voiced their concerns about an eight-year relationship coming to an end on July 1 during a public hearing for the upcoming budget. Some believed that the costs would be too much for the town to bear when it comes to maintenance and other costs such as making sure someone is available 24/7.
Business owners were worried too. Local businessman Andy Runion believes the town should have been notified earlier or had the opportunity to have more input about safety.
“The jokes going around town in Sampson County that it’s going to be a free-for-all in Garland on July 1,” Runion said. “That’s really scary being a business owner here.”
Runion stressed that the business owners and property managers should have known and had a public forum two months ago about the issue.
“It’s really disheartening and a real concern,” Runion said.
Another business owner brought up her business being burglarized and believes safety may become worse. The matter of a deputy arriving in a timely manner was also mentioned.
Commissioner Carolyn Melvin said she understood the concerns of the residents when it comes to safety.
“It sounds good to say we have police officers here, but I think we’re under the misconception that they’re always here,” Melvin said about the time factors and unfortunate crime incidents. “You still have to call 911.”
Melvin said it’s going to be expensive to initiate, but over time she think Garland having its own law enforcement will be better for the town.
“Initially, starting something is going to be expensive, but we’re not going to have to buy cars every year and radios every year,” Melvin said. “We’re not going to have to do those things all the time. I think we’re a little misled.”
Murphy encouraged residents to address county officials about the cost that county commissioners believe is too much for a town with a high poverty rate. She also reiterated how it’s not going to be smooth sailing from here on.
“I’m not going to tell the citizens that it’s going to happen by July 1,” she said, uncertain about an official start day. “It might happen by July 1 of 2017.”
But in the meantime, Murphy reassured everyone in attendance that Sheriff Jimmy Thornton and his deputies will continue to do their job and be vigilant for illegal drug activity.
Ralph Smith said taxpayers need to understand that the sheriff’s contract request would take up 60 percent of the town’s tax base.
“I would like for the citizens to bear with us and let us try something different to see if it’s going to work,” Ralph Smith said. “It worked for years before that. I don’t see why it won’t work now.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.