Editor's note: This is part two in a series of questions candidates running to be Dawson County's next sheriff answered during a political forum held March 17 by the local chamber of commerce.
Jeff Johnson, commander of the Dawson County jail; Jeff Perry, a retired parole chief; Frank Sosebee, chief of security at the Hall County Correctional Institution; and Tony Wooten, captain of the county's community policing program and sheriff's office spokesman, did not see the questions before the forum.
What do you view as the strengths of the Dawson County Sheriff's Office and what areas need improvement and how do you plan to address the areas that need improvement?
The strength of the sheriff's office is the men and women that go out every day. We've got a great group of people that are there at the sheriff's office that work hard every day. Those men and women take the opportunity to go to work and tell their families bye and may not come back again. That's got to be the strength in any organization. The things that I think we could do better is --- that's a difficult question, because I think you should be striving to better at everything you do. Every single facet of that sheriff's office needs to be better ... I should do better the day I take office, and I should do better the next day and the next day after that. We should strive every day to be better. The sheriff's office has some areas that we've mentioned up here that we want target. I think we need to be more aggressive with DUI arrests. I believe when you stop small crimes, you stop big crimes, and that's what we're going to target, small crimes in Dawson County. You've got to go with the broken windows theory. We've worked with this at the park. Some of the city council knows I've done this in the past. We trim the bushes. We ran off the problem kids over there and we brought back the good people that were afraid to go to the park and we'll do it again.
That's one thing we'll agree, the strengths of your sheriff's department lies with its people. You have some of the finest staff there. You have some of the finest men and women dedicated to public safety. I think if anybody in law enforcement got into it for any other reason than a sacrifice to our people, we've missed the mark. I also think the greatest need for improvement again is the lifespan of our people. We should be constantly striving to increase our knowledge to increase our skills and increase our capabilities. We all have weaknesses, things that we excel at, things that we're not so good at. We should constantly be working on those things that we're not so good at. Years ago in Gainesville I had some of the best burglary people there were. They weren't ones to get out and stop cars, but by George, they'd catch a burglary in your neighborhood. I promise you that. I want them where their heart is, where their passion is at and that's where we want them to serve. I will rely on the Georgia State Patrol for a lot of our traffic enforcement needs. I want the officers in your homes. I want them in your neighborhoods. I want to get back to community policing where you know your officers by name. If they know you personally, they're going to be more inclined to take better care of you. I promise you that.
I heard a CEO of Delta speak one time. He said, "We're not in the airline business. We're in the people business." That goes with everything we do. I think the guys and women at the sheriff's department do a great job. Right now, we're seeing a time when it's popular in the national media to bash a police officer. One of the things I think we need to improve on, recruitment and retention and succession planning. Right now, since Jan. 1 of 2011 to Dec. 31 of 2015, we lost 86 deputies here, 86 personnel members at the sheriff's department. If you do the math, $8,000 to train someone, times that, comes out to about $684,000 that we're training and sending to Hall County, Forsyth County and Alpharetta, North Fulton, so we've got to do a better job with that. We've got to go to North Georgia College and we've got to offer internships. We've got to recruit. Once we get them here, we've got to retain. And I know some people are saying they can do this with the budget, doing that with the budget, but the fact of the matter is we need to look at paying these folks more money. I know we had to make some tough decisions in 2008. Now we're looking good. Now we're looking forward. We need to keep these people right here, because in the long run, you're going to pay more.
First and foremost, your employees are the paramount of your department. Here there have been a lot of employees that has left the Dawson County Sheriff's Office. I saw that when I was here for 16 years. It's unfortunate that we lose this type of experience, but it happens. We have counties that surround us that are paying quite a bit more. We've got to get the pay to keep the people. But I also want to stress -- it's part of the leadership. If you lead your employees, they will stay. And that's what I'm experiencing in Hall County right now. We've got a new staff, new leadership that's come in, and we're thriving. I'm proud to say that before every one of you. We are doing a fine job in Hall County, but we can do that in Dawson County. We need these officers here. These officers want to stay here. I have a program for grades nine through 12 for an example to retain some kids. I want to do a little police academy with them for about six weeks. Once they're done with that, these kids that don't go to college may want to come back and put in an application and work for the sheriff's office. If they go to college and obtain their criminal justice degree, there again, they may come back. Sheriff [Duane] Piper is experiencing that dramatically right now in Forsyth County. There's ways that we can keep folks here.
Considering the fact that the sheriff's office represents the largest department budget in the county at $7.2 million and requires great coordination between the staff and partnering agencies, what experience do you have that makes you qualified to manage this office?
I've been in law enforcement for 32 years. I've worked with some budgets. I've worked with the budgets here in Dawson County. Currently, at my facility where I'm at now, Hall County Correctional Institute, our budget is only $4.9 million, but the warden and I, we sit down and work this budget. Here in Dawson County, we're going to have to focus on the budget, and the reason I say that is we are limited on resources here. We're going to have to have more officers. That's inevitable. Going to have to have more investigators. The reason I say that we need an investigator at the outlet mall and cars at the outlet mall is we've got to reduce crime. We've got to slow down what's coming into this county that is causing the crime. These are the individuals that I'm actually housing right now, several that's actually from Dawson County that's arrested in Dawson County and other counties as well. But we've got to stop this. We've got to get people involved. This community oriented policing, that is a major task that has to be taken here in Dawson County. We need involvement from all the citizens, business owners. This is going to be everybody group that's going to join together, hand in hand, walking side by side so we can solve this and defeat any crime that comes into this county.
I've been the commander of all the divisions but one. I have been in charge of the budget of the patrol division, of investigations, of the courthouse ... of the school resource officers. I've got the experience of your budget. I'm a conservative. I'm not going to ask you for your money until I've used my money, and that's what's going to happen from day one if I'm your sheriff. There's 108 positions at the sheriff's office. Until I feel I have utilized all 108 positions to the best of my ability, I'm not coming to you for any more. That's my pledge. Now we may get to a point where I have to go to the commissioners and say, "Look, I've done everything I can." We've got positions, 108. We can move some of these positions around, and that's what I'm planning on doing. I think that goes to benefit that I have been here for 18 years. I have worked these divisions. I know where we can combine a few duties, and I know where we can take those positions and move them out to roads like we've all talked about. Crime has been down. We've done an amazing job. We've put a lot on the backs of men and women that are out there every day with their bullet proof vests and guns. And we're going to put some other people from our department out there.
For the last seven years I've commanded your detention, arguably the county's largest liability. We're in charge of care and custody on average of 165 people a day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It's the sheriff's single largest budgetary component. It's the sheriff's largest single liability component that we have. Over the past seven years, we worked to reduce our budget. Every year, every day, we're constantly analyzing, finding ways to reduce our exposure to liability. We're finding ways to reduce money, to save the county money. When I first took over in 2007 as the detention commander, we were paying roughly $400,000 a year in inmate medical. Today, we're paying roughly $305,000. We've saved the county nearly $100,000 in spending the past seven years. We're trimming in our food services. If we get to the point, I think the people need to have a say so to increase our funding, whether or not we want to increase our staffing. As your sheriff, I'll come to you and tell you. I'll give you the facts in black and white on why I think we need to do this. But ultimately I believe it's through the town hall meetings. It's through the people. Are you satisfied with the level of service? Do you want more? We are going to trim the fat, too. There's positions, I agree, that need to be changed, needs to be better utilized.
If you actually manage the budget ... you know you have to make some tough decisions. Sometimes it's not popular. In 2008, I was over three offices and an area that, square miles, was larger than Delaware and Rhode Island, and so I implemented what was called results based budgeting, meaning if we didn't get results, if we weren't getting results for something we were funding, then we were not going to fund that any longer. We took that money and put it somewhere we could get results. The other thing, in 2008, everybody felt this economic downturn in the economy. I was over three offices. I made the decision to close three offices, allowed people to work from home and their cars, because we were mobile, we had the technology to do it, and we returned $2 million to the general fund. I look at [these] questions when I go in, when I take over an office, or when I go into an underperforming office. The same thing you do with your business: What are we doing, what do we need to keep doing and what are we not doing that we need to start doing and what are we doing that we need to stop doing? I have the experience. I made the tough decisions in 2008 that affected real lives so we could come in under budget.