By Nhan-Ai Simms
Dear Mayor Girtz and the Commission of Athens-Clarke County,
I am writing today to express my concerns about the budget outlined for Fiscal Year 2021 and the proposed 50/10 Plan.
As the wife of a law enforcement officer whose family has resided in Athens for his entire life and himself has dedicated the last twenty years to serving Athens as a sworn police officer, as a prosecutor who worked within and comprehends the criminal justice system of Athens, and as an Asian first generation immigrant whose immediate family has experienced, and whose extended family continues to experience, the devastating effects of an oppressive and tyrannical government, I deeply understand how the events of late have created a strong desire to reevaluate our society’s approach to public safety. However, you all as the Mayor and as Commissioners swore an oath to support and defend the Charter of Athens-Clarke County in addition to the constitutions and laws of Georgia and the United States. And with that oath, comes the responsibility to put aside your own agendas and effectuate positive change that betters the entire community – law enforcement included.
After reviewing the proposed 50/10 Plan, I understand now that although there seems to be a push from a very vocal minority to create a “world without police”, this plan does not attempt to eliminate the Athens-Clarke County Police Department as a whole. Rather, it would drastically reduce the already under-staffed and under-funded Department. I fear that this was a hastily- created plan in response to the admittedly horrific abuses of power that have occurred outside of the Athens community in recent months. Had more collaboration and more thoughtful consideration been given to the far-reaching dangers of such a myopic plan, and had a thorough analysis of this year’s proposed budget been completed by the very Commissioners who are likely to vote for and pass said budget as it stands, perhaps a more logical reallocation of funds would have been proposed...one that would accomplish positive change and not seek to demoralize an already severely disheartened law enforcement and first responder community.
First, the advocates of the 50/10 Plan seek $50,000 to implement this proposal, and suggest that “disinvesting in policing”1 is the best source for those funds. However, what the proposal neglects to highlight is that in your current recommended budget, you are seeking $23,000 in taxpayer money to fund “Mayor and Commission Retreat and Meetings”2. This egregious and unethical request comes during our country’s current economic instability, and at a time when the current poverty rate in Athens3 amounts to 31.6%. If I am doing my math correctly, one mayor and ten commissioners amounts to 11 individuals. Since COVID has taught us that meetings can now be held virtually and at veritably low cost (thank you Zoom and Webex!), this means that this administration is seeking over $2,000 per person in taxpayer funds to pay for what could only be an absurdly extravagant annual retreat.
And if seeking taxpayer funds for such a retreat during this recession isn’t bad enough, the budget also seeks an additional 7.1% INCREASE in the “salary/benefits” of your respective offices, without any additional full-time positions being sought for those offices.4 Where is that $41,300 going, except directly into the paychecks of those affiliated with your offices? This does not come as a surprise, as a review of budgets from years past will show that since 2015, every penny (and sometimes even more) that the Mayor and Commissioners have requested in expenditures has been approved.5 In stark contrast, during that same time frame, the very Police Department that the proponents of the 50/10 Plan are so vehemently seeking to defund, has NEVER received a dollar for dollar match in what they have sought from the Commission in the annual budget. While other departments (outside of public safety) have seen increases of 10%, 15%, 20% in their yearly expenditures, since 2010 ACCPD has never increased its yearly expenditures more than 5% from the previous year.
The 50/10 Plan also requests $111,000 for an “additional Mental Health Co-Responder for ACCPD” in partnership with Advantage Behavioral Health.6 However, this year’s Recommended Budget denies that same independent agency a mere $18,021 increase in funding to allow ABH “to keep pace with anticipated growth by proactively expanding evidence based treatment and housing support for the most vulnerable citizens.”7 And though the proposed plan claims to help individuals “connect to resources, and access critical social supports”, this year’s budget also denies the Juvenile Court the additional personnel it seeks, and even cuts the Juvenile Court’s expenditures by 1.9%.8 The budget further rejects the Superior Court’s request to fund YouthServe – a diversion program that helps young offenders engage in community service and leadership development.9 Rather than implementing an entirely new plan that would ultimately cost the livelihood of 50% of the Police Department, why not invest in the existing community programs that many departments in Athens are already seeking to fund?
The Plan also proposes permanently removing current vacancies from the Police Department. In an effort to justify this reduction in an already severely under-staffed department, the
1 See paragraph 3 of bullet Part 1 at http://www.timdensonforathens.com/5010plan/ 2 See Page 105 of 368 (FY21 Mayor C-73) from the FY21 “Mayor Recommended Budget”. 3 See https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/athensclarkecountybalancegeorgia/RHI225218 4 See Page 109 of 368 (FY21 Mayor C-77) from the FY21 “Mayor Recommended Budget”. 5 For FY15, see page 107 of 366 (C-60); for FY16, see page 106 of 366 (C-59); for FY17, see page 104 of 363 (C-60); for FY18, see page 103 of 384 (C-62); for FY19, see Page 110 of 371 (C-73); and for FY20, see Page 108 of 370 (FY20 Mayor C-70) from the FY20 “Mayor Recommended Budget”. 6 See http://www.timdensonforathens.com/5010plan/ 7 See Page 360 of 368 (FY21 Mayor F-2) from the FY21 “Mayor Recommended Budget”. 8 See Page 91 of 368 (FY21 Mayor C-59) from the FY21 “Mayor Recommended Budget”. 9 See Page 152 of 368 (FY21 Mayor C-120) from the FY21 “Mayor Recommended Budget”.
proponents claim that “the crime rate in Athens is going down”10. However, homicides in Athens have been steadily on the rise for the past several years.11 And in addition to currently being understaffed, it must be emphasized that although ACCPD may have a certain number of sworn officers on duty, at any given time many of those officers could be in training, on light duty, or otherwise unavailable for deployment. To be clear, each officer who is removed from the department further jeopardizes the safety and well-being of every officer who IS on duty. Making those current vacancies permanent would limit the number of officers who would be able to quickly respond to an emergent and dangerous situation. On a given home football game weekend, how can we justify reducing the number of officers who patrol the streets of downtown, when an additional 100,000 individuals make their way to Athens? (Remember, ACCPD does not have the luxury of working inside the stadium and watching the game – they are stationed at traffic posts and areas in and around downtown.) Further, if we have learned anything from the numerous justified officer-involved shootings last year, it’s that having multiple officers at the scene saves the other officers’ lives.
The advocates of this plan and I do agree, however, when it comes to increasing the funding of the Public Defender’s Office. Having worked closely with many of the attorneys in that office, I know first-hand that they are an integral and absolutely necessary component in a legal system that seeks to be fair and just. Appropriately funding the Public Defender’s Office should not, however, come at the expense of state-paid prosecutors, who themselves are facing a possible 44 days of furloughs in the coming year – what would amount to a nearly 20% annual pay cut from their state salaries. The Athens DA’s Office is by no means an office with unlimited resources, despite what some would have you believe. The personnel in that office, from prosecutors to Victim Witness Advocates to Investigators, dedicate their lives to seeking truth and promoting justice, and most do it with salaries that are 25%-50% less than their major- metro county counterparts. Crime doesn’t decrease simply because a DA’s Office and a Police Department are stripped of funding. A reduction in resources for those departments would lead to a slower court system that jeopardizes not only a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy resolution of his/her case, but also a victim’s now constitutionally-protected rights under the recently-passed Marsy’s Law.
If the proponents of this plan are serious about its implementation and want to truly provide the needed services to the community, then reallocating the $263,100 sought from the General Fund for this plan is an easy task. More importantly, it can be done without pilfering the already lacking-resources from the Police Department, as doing so would jeopardize the safety of the officers who willingly risk their lives on a daily basis. These officers leave their homes before the beginning of their shift knowing that they may never see their families again. Their families relish in hearing the sound of velcro, because it means that their loved one is removing his/her bulletproof vest and has made it home for at least one more night. Most police officers do not join their line of work to benefit themselves, but seek instead to support their fellow officers who already make the same sacrifices, and to serve a community who oftentimes denigrates their mere existence. Law enforcement officers do it willingly, they do it selflessly, and with the exception of the few who blatantly abuse their power, they do it honorably.
In reviewing the budget, it’s apparent that this plan could be easily funded if you and the Commissioners were willing to forego the $23,000 exorbitantly expensive retreat and the $41,300 in increased salary/benefits that your offices are seeking. Since 2015, despite having the same number of authorized full-time personnel as you have today, the Mayor’s and
10 See again, http://www.timdensonforathens.com/5010plan/ 11 See https://www.onlineathens.com/news/20190217/2019-starts-off-deadly-in-athens
Commission’s offices have increased their total expenditures by 23%. Conversely, the Police Department, which if this budget passes as is, will have been authorized 21 additional full-time positions (many of which are vacant) since 2015. And even with those 21 additionally approved positions, ACCPD’s expenditures have increased by half the percentage points of the Mayor and Commission: 11.9% since 2015. For more funding, look instead to all the departments and see which ones are seeking to increase their salary/benefits at a significantly higher rate than other departments, and reduce those amounts. Look for line items that can be reasonably delayed during this economic downturn (e.g., beautification efforts and civic dinners). Seek out line items that carry no specific explanation: $20,000 for the “Mayor’s Community Improvement Program”? That item appears twice in the budget without explanation as to what the program actually accomplishes. Also, $1800 for “Other” dues and memberships? Is it not possible to specifically list all the dues and memberships for which the county spends taxpayer money?
As we reflect on the current events and its effects on our society, our goal, and yours as leaders in this community, must be to foster cooperation and communication between the law enforcement community and the Athens community at large. Implementing polarizing legislation that seeks to vilify dedicated officers and defund their departments does nothing but punish our currently hard-working law enforcement community for the bad acts of individuals who act in stark contrast to our own well-intentioned officers. Your oath of office requires you to uphold the laws our county, state and country has lawfully enacted, and as leaders in this community, you must balance that duty with your moral responsibility to bridge the divide that has grown within our communities. You must refrain from putting forth your own agendas and desires and seek the best way to move forward for the betterment of your community as a whole - which includes your local law enforcement.
Sims is a former assistant district attorney in the Western Judicial Circuit.