Should Thomaston residents have to pay for law enforcement services that the Sheriff’s Department is not providing? That was the question the City of Thomaston raised in a court motion for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief under the Service Delivery Strategy Act.
Unfortunately for the city, Senior Superior Court Judge Stephen E. Boswell denied the city’s motion on August 24, ruling that the Constitution of the State of Georgia makes the Sheriff independent from the county. The Supreme Court of Georgia has stated that “the Sheriff is an elected constitutional officer; he is subject to charge of the General Assembly and is not an employee of the county commission. Under state law, the Sheriff is charged with keeping the peace “within his county,” which includes both incorporated areas like Thomaston and Yatesville, and the unincorporated portions of Upson County.
The city’s issue dealt with the Sheriff’s Department being funded through the general fund of Upson County, which Thomaston taxpayers pay into, the same as taxpayers in the unincorporated portions of the county. The city believes the Sheriff’s Department should instead be funded through the Service Delivery Strategy Act, in which the city is set up as a special taxing district, and the unincorporated county is set up as a special taxing district. By doing so, the city could eliminate paying for portions of the Sheriff’s Departments’ duties – investigations and patrols – that the Sheriff’s Department is not providing to city residents.
As an example of the city’s claim, in fiscal year 2014, approximately $1,436,152.25 of the Sheriff’s Department budget went to investigations, patrols, and the Narcotics Task Force (NTF). The City of Thomaston’s portion of that, based on the 35.66 percent that city residents contributed to joint projects in 2014, was $512,131.
A check back from 2010 to 2014 by Andrew Pippen, Criminal Investigations Division Commander for the Thomaston Police Department found that during that time period, the Upson County Sheriff’s Department conducted just one investigation within the City of Thomaston, which involved theft of county-owned property. The city also stated that in a deposition of Sheriff Kilgore, he conceded that he cannot police the city with his existing budget.
Since Thomaston has its own police force that handles patrols and investigations, and has its own member on the NTF, the city feels its residents should not be forced to pay the $512,131 to the Sheriff’s Department through their property taxes paid into the county’s general fund.
And since Georgia Code states ‘The County cannot use its general fund, which includes revenues collected from city residents, to pay for services provided primarily for the benefit of unincorportated residents,” the city wanted the funding for the Sheriff’s Department to be handled through the Service Delivery Strategy Act, which requires the city and county to set up special taxing districts. By doing so, the county could collect that portion of the Sheriff’s Department budget through the taxing district set up in the unincorporated portion of the county.
But Judge Boswell used a 2005 opinion given by then-Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker that stated that an amendment to the Service Delivery Strategy Act enacted in 2004 “removes any sheriff, clerk of superior court, judge of the probate court, or tax commissioner… or services provided by such elected officials from the definition of ‘local government,’ with the result that those officials and the costs of their offices are not to be included in the deliberations of local government officials when formulating agreements between counties and cities regarding the delivery of local government services.”
Judge Boswell also referred to the Georgia Constitution that states that the Sheriff acts as a conservator of the peace within his county and that “The Sheriff, elected by all citizens of the county, has a constitutional duty to provide law enforcement to all, regardless of where they live in the county.”
Thomaston City Attorney Joel Bentley has indicated that the city plans to appeal Judge Bosworth’s decision.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.