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Sheriff: Traffic unit living up to billing

POSTED: August 22, 2011 7:18 p.m.

The numbers are telling Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie the traffic enforcement unit is doing what he promised it would accomplish. And he says it’s doing a better job than anyone realizes.

The sheriff said the four-man traffic unit is taking in “an astronomical amount more” than county officials know and it’s also hitting its marks in its other objectives.

“The goal of the traffic unit was to make sure the streets and roads safer,” McDuffie said.

ECSO figures show that the traffic unit’s citations have resulted in $283,863.50 processed through the courts.

“That’s just traffic tickets,” said McDuffie, adding it doesn’t take into account fines for criminal offenses. Criminal traffic offenses include speeding in excess of 25 mph over the speed limit, driving under the influence, reckless driving and drug possession.

The criminal fines from processed court cases through June account for more than $64,600. Through June 30, the outstanding fines processed through the court, both traffic and criminal, total more than $89,000.

According to ECSO statistics, the traffic unit has written tickets with fines totaling more than $520,000. With more criminal fines included, the total assessed from November 2010 to June 2011 is over $596,000.

“That doesn’t include the tickets we wrote in June that are coming through court this month, or the tickets we wrote in July that’s coming to court next month,” McDuffie said. “But we know there are going to be reductions. There are a lot of reasons it wouldn’t be that amount.”

Fines being reduced and being converted to such punishments as community service may cut into the amount collected.

The startup cost for the traffic unit — with three deputies and a supervisor, along with four new cars — was $235,815.80.

“That unit has already paid for itself,” McDuffie said. “It tells you it hasn’t been a cost to the taxpayers. It has reduced our highway fatalities. It has reduced our wrecks. It’s done everything that we said it would do, at no cost basically to the taxpayers.”

The unit had written 4,595 tickets since its November 2010 startup. From November 2009-June 2010, patrol deputies wrote 2,401 tickets. The total number of traffic tickets written through June since the traffic unit was created was 5,918.The traffic unit also has made 14 felony drug arrests, 33 misdemeanor drug arrests. They have made 98 criminal arrests and also got 42 wanted people off the street, according to McDuffie.

In addition, it’s also educated young and aspiring drivers on the dangers that lie ahead on the roads.

“We told them what we expected out of them,” McDuffie said. “We expected a reduction in accidents. We expected a reduction in fatalities. We expected some education in our schools and community and we expected it to fund itself. And it has done every single thing we told them we expected of it.”

Losing the traffic unit could impact the bottom line, not to mention safety on Effingham’s perpetually busy roads, McDuffie argued.

“If I stop them from writing tickets, we’re going to lose $350,000,” he said. “They are generating three times that $81,000 they’re talking about. It’s generating well above the dollars (it has been claimed to have saved.)”

The sheriff also is worried what may happen to his budget in the near time. The ECSO’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2012 was $5.1 million, down from $5.8 million in FY10. The personnel portion of the sheriff’s office also originally was scheduled to be reduced from $4.61 million in FY11 to $4.19 million in FY12.

County commissioners, in voting to keep the traffic unit, also decided not to make the department a stand-alone unit and put it back in the regular sheriff’s office budget. McDuffie said he had no idea why the traffic enforcement unit was a stand-alone item in the budget at all.

Keeping deputies on the road

But in keeping the traffic unit, the sheriff said it may put open patrol deputy positions at risk.

“What they attempted to do was use the traffic unit to fill vacant slots in patrol. And we’re not going to do that,” he said. “We’ve got to have those folks on the street, and we need the traffic unit as well.

“We can’t do without those positions on the street,” McDuffie continued. “If they’re bound and determined that that’s the case, then the only choice I have is to close down the traffic unit and put everybody back on shift. I don’t have excess manpower.”

A 2005 study, performed by Maximus, said the minimum staff target of four deputies per shift can be difficult to maintain. Each squad had four deputies and a shift sergeant, and if a deputy is not on duty because of illness or vacation, that spot has to be filled either by the sergeant or by another deputy working overtime.

At the time of the study, the county’s population was about 40,000. “Ten thousand residents later,” said McDuffie, “we have a sergeant and five deputies (per shift).”

The ECSO’s manpower was taxed two weeks when severe storms battered the county. When the storms hit — and they hit a wide swath of the county — the ECSO had a sergeant and four patrol deputies on the road. It required the sheriff to put nearly every person with a badge and a car on the roads to help direct and divert traffic and to handle calls for assistance.

“I had my entire command staff on the street,” he said. “I had general crimes investigators out riding calls. I had the five deputies coming on duty riding calls. I had four deputies from the other shift that had gotten off riding calls and I called in two other deputies who were off. We were hammered that bad.”

The sheriff’s office also has had to its personnel at the new courthouse and has someone assigned to the old historic courthouse. McDuffie also pointed to the spike in cases for the general crimes and for the drug unit investigators.

“There’s a lot of other things that have to go on, too,” he said.

In 2007, the sheriff’s office sacrificed nine open positions and a school guard crossing spot in order to get enough money to increase the base salary for deputies.

“I had 14 openings I couldn’t fill, because people couldn’t afford to come here,” McDuffie said. “The way I look at it, I increased five deputies by doing that.”

Losing those positions and raising those base salaries also put his department on a more level playing field with other local law enforcement agencies, according to the sheriff. He was bringing in deputies, only to have them leave in short order for better paying entities.

“We became competitive with other agencies around us; we’ve been able to maintain personnel since that time,” he said. “We were turning over deputies left and right.”

McDuffie recounted the tale of a deputy who worked for him for two years before joining the Bloomingdale Police Department, getting a raise of $1.38 an hour in the process. He added his staff is cognizant of the lack of merit and cost of living adjustments raises last year and this year.

“It doesn’t make anybody happy,” he said. “But they understand the position everybody is in.”

Making the ECSO competitive

But the sheriff is worried that should the economy rebound, other nearby agencies may start increasing their offers to qualified law enforcement personnel. It’s estimated the ECSO loses from $3,000 to $5,000 for every deputy who is trained and hired and then opts to go elsewhere.

“We’re going to be right back where we started off,” McDuffie said. “I can’t give up nine more positions. And you lose 14 in a year’s time, that’s $42,000 we just threw away by hiring, training and sending somebody to another agency. It hurts. We’ve got a lot of good folks. We’ve got some good deputies.”

McDuffie said he has a good dialogue established with County Administrator David Crawley as they discuss the ECSO’s budgetary needs.

“One of my jobs is not just the safety of the citizens,” the sheriff said, “but also good stewardship of the tax dollars. I think we can work through some of this stuff and be able to communicate and figure out where we can do better.”

McDuffie added he and his staff conduct brainstorming sessions on where the ECSO can save money. For more than a year, the ECSO’s administrative office has been closed on Fridays and has had extended hours Monday-Thursday.

“They’re telling us it’s somewhere in the $20,000 range we’re saving by having the office closed on Fridays,” he said.
ECSO personnel also are working from their homes on days the office is closed, McDuffie added.

“We’ve asked folks to sacrifice their mornings and afternoons to make this happen,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of folks who work in Savannah and they still have time to get here and take care of business and don’t have to take a day off of work to do it. We’re the only county entity that does that, and it saves money. That tells you we’re pro-active in trying to save dollars.”

The ECSO has the option of filing a mandamus, a superior court order to compel a lower court or governmental body to perform its mandatory duties correctly, if the sheriff believes further budget cutbacks put his ability to protect the county in jeopardy. It’s an option, however, McDuffie is loathe to consider.

“I cannot sacrifice citizen safety in the long run,” he said. “Crime is up everywhere. I feel like our county is an extremely safe county. I can file a mandamus against the county, but what does that do? If citizen safety becomes paramount, then I will seek legal ramification. But as long as we can talk and work things out, I don’t see a need for that.”

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