Effingham County’s two sheriff contestants made some of their final pitches to potential voters Thursday and Friday nights.
Incumbent sheriff Jimmy McDuffie and challenger Rick Gossett will find out later tonight who will be the next sheriff when the Republican primary votes are tallied. With no Democrats running for the office, the winner will not face opposition on the November ballot.
McDuffie and Gossett, a former Effingham sheriff’s deputy who is now the Bloomingdale police chief, addressed the Local Organization or Voters Equality at St. Matthew’s Missionary Baptist Church on Thursday night and the state meeting of the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation at the Springfield American Legion post on Friday night.
McDuffie began his law enforcement career as a radio operator in Waycross 31 years ago and has been with the Effingham County sheriff’s office for 21 years. He has been the sheriff for the last six years.
“And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he said.
Gossett will celebrate his fifth anniversary as Bloomingdale chief today and said he was prepared to retire from that job in a few years until repeated entreaties from others to run for sheriff.
He has campaigned that he will try to eliminate the turnover problem that has plagued the department.
“Deputies don’t leave just because of the pay,” he said. “We want to recruit and retain good qualified officers. You take the overall budget and you spend it on people and you use the equipment a little bit longer. Have good equipment but get the maximum use out of it.”
Under McDuffie, the department has grown from 88 employees to 125. Deputies’ patrol cars are now equipped with cameras and computers. The computers, the result of an $11,000 grant, allow the deputies to remain on the road and not have to return to the office to file reports, he said.
McDuffie also extolled the work of the drug unit.
“We’ve done some good things,” he said. “We have $180,000 in confiscated money. We have 24 cars. There are 25 weapons now off the streets. We own three houses.”
Gossett acknowledged the work the sheriff’s department has done in subduing what had been a rampant drug problem, especially with methamphetamine makers and dealers.
“I have to commend Jimmy,” he said. “But I want to expand that.”
Gossett favors a regional approach, using the resources of neighboring counties and agencies to quell the drug problem.
“A cooperative effort is needed against drugs,” he said. “We can make a call and get 15-20 agents up here. Jimmy’s done a good job on drugs, but our agents are getting burned. It shares the cost and plus, it gives us fresh faces (for undercover work).”
McDuffie said the county’s three biggest law enforcement issues remain drugs, domestic violence and traffic. He hopes to set up a traffic control division within the department.
“Anyone who’s driven between here and Rincon knows we have a traffic problem,” he said.
He also said there is a connection between the drugs and domestic violence. McDuffie was chairman of Effingham Victim Witness for two years, and the agency was instrumental in getting the 5 percent add on for fines across the state, he said.
Currently, Chief Deputy Richard Bush is a member of the Victim Witness board.
“We work closely with them because of the domestic violence in the county,” McDuffie said. “They need to know where they can go for help.”
Gossett said he’s also worked with Victim Witness and added the cooperative effort needed is an example of what he wants to do.
“We’re in this together,” he said. “It starts with the citizens. We can accomplish nothing without the cooperation of the citizens.”
Gossett said a cooperative effort is needed to help non-violent drug offenders.
“You don’t want the program to be a revolving door,” he said.
McDuffie said those in jail for misdemeanor offenses undergo counseling sessions twice a week.
“One thing I want to put into place is a work release program,” he said.
McDuffie added he is working with the county commissioners to get the jail extended to hold such a program, where prisoners would go to their jobs during the day and return to the jail on nights and weekends.
Both McDuffie and Gossett said they want to establish a citizens advisory board for the sheriff’s department.
“Even with our crime rate being low, we still answer about 4,000 calls per month,” McDuffie said. “It’s one of those things we’ve put on the backburner but hopefully we’ll have it up and running by the end of the year.”
Gossett said he will establish a citizens advisory board before he takes office, if he is elected. He also said a citizens police academy he established in Bloomingdale also has worked well.
“The first thing we have to remember is we work for the citizens,” he said. “When I took over the Bloomingdale Police Department, it had a problem. But we corrected the problem.”
For the initial academy, there were 25 people signed up.
“They were there to tear us up,” Gossett said. “They are now some of our biggest advocates. It fosters an understanding of what we do and how we do it.”
Gossett reiterated his desire to establish precincts in order to get officers on the streets.
McDuffie said there are programs he wants to establish if he is re-elected. He said he is in the process of putting together an Explorers program in conjunction with the Boy Scouts. He said the county currently does not have a Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in the schools, though results vary on the program’s effectiveness. McDuffie is eying a CHAMPS (Choosing Healthy Activities and Methods Promoting Safety) program sponsored by the Georgia Sheriffs Association.
“We need to get out and touch our children at a young age so they are not residents of my jail,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of things I want to do in the next four years.”