A bill by Rep. Houston Gaines banning “defusing the police” will not hinder efforts to reconsider public safety in Athens, commissioners say.
Gaines’ bill has passed the Georgian legislature and is on his way to the governor’s desk awaiting Governor Brian Kemp’s signature. This legislation would prohibit local governments from cutting a police agency’s budget by more than 5% within a year.
Exceptions are police stations with fewer than 25 officers or when revenue falls by more than 5%.
Gaines’ district includes Athens, a city that he specifically identified as necessary for this legislation. In 2020, Commissioners Mariah Parker and Tim Denson advocated a plan to reduce the Athens-Clarke County Police Department by 50% over a 10-year period, known as the 50/10 Public Safety Reform Plan.
“Last year there was a proposal to cut 50% of the police department and I felt that doing so would put our community at risk,” Gaines said.
“We have seen other places in the country like Minneapolis, Portland and Los Angeles where they did this and crime has skyrocketed. I wanted to make sure this doesn’t happen here in Athens, it doesn’t happen anywhere in Georgia. “
The 50/10 plan called for a committee to work out a plan to implement the budget cut, but ultimately the 50% cut was not implemented.
However, elements of this plan have been added to the 2021 fiscal year budget, including funding a mental health co-response team, an in-house ambulance service at 911 Dispatch, and funding a social worker for the public defender’s office.
Gaines’ bill received bipartisan support in Georgian legislation but was still due for signature by Kemp as of Friday night.
While drafting the legislation, Gaines received opposition from the Georgia Municipal Association. However, he said he spoke to them and other local governments and took some requests from the Municipal Association.
“We have worked with good local governments to ensure that they can do the same when there is a need to responsibly reduce spending. But if they just want to cut their police budgets and put families at risk, we have passed this measure, ”said Gaines.
In the last Athens-Clarke County’s budget, the police budget was increased by 2.7%, or approximately $ 580,000. Police services make up 16% of the total budget, which is the largest percentage of all other departments. The sheriff’s office is the second highest at 12.6%.
Denson said the commissioners plan to introduce a pay scale plan to increase police salaries this year that would increase the police budget again.
“It is likely that we will be raising the wages of police officers based on a pay incremental plan so that wages are more competitive compared to other departments across the country so that we can actually make sure we get the best people for these positions,” said Denson
Speaking to his constituents, Gaines said he had received positive feedback and support from “across the political spectrum”.
The bill was drafted in response to the 50/10 plan by Parker and Denson, who both said they were not contacted by Gaines during its drafting process. Gaines said he checked the plan online and spoke to a few people in the local government.
“I checked what they posted and kept in touch with various people in our local government, but you know it’s something I’ve read through and reviewed all of their suggestions. You know what they suggested, it was honestly something that concerns me, “Gaines said.
One of Denson’s concerns is that this bill set a “dangerous precedent” by violating local control. Denson said this opens the door for state officials to create laws targeting the local governments they represent.
Both Denson and Parker said they expect this bill to be challenged and found unconstitutional.
Gaines said when families are at risk it is time for the state government to step in. He added that since the law applies to the entire state and not just Athens, it would not legally violate house rules laws.
“I’m someone who believes in local control, but when there are local governments that put families at risk and do that sort of thing, it’s worrying,” Gaines said.
Gaines called the defunding of the police a “radical” idea and is not supported by the people. However, he admitted that there are some cities and counties that are opposing the bill.
“I’ve heard from some people in our local government that the mayor and the commission are saying that this bill is not needed because they are not really going to disappoint the police. But I would say if that’s the case there is nothing to worry about, ”said Gaines.
And Parker said that bill won’t hinder their plans for Athens.
Parker advocates a reorganization of public security in Athens, which could in part include restructuring the police force.
“Ultimately, I mean, if we were to diversify our public safety response, we would be asking for an increased investment in public safety,” said Parker.