MEIGS — Cities across Thomas County are steadily eliminating their police departments as costs continue to rise.
Meigs is the latest municipality to shutter its police department after its city council voted to do so Wednesday evening. It now joins Barwick, Ochlocknee and the unincorporated community of Metcalfe in having to rely entirely upon the Thomas County Sheriff’s Office for protection.
Meigs had been spending more than $200,000 on the police department, or about one third of the city’s entire annual budget.
That means projects the council considers vital have had to take a backseat as money was instead directed toward maintaining a police force, according to Mayor Cheryl Walters.
For Walters, having to wait a few minutes longer for deputies to respond to an incident may be a necessary sacrifice.
“If the City of Meigs runs out of money, nothing will be provided,” she said. “When times are tough and you have to pay the bills you’ve got to tighten your belt.”
The Meigs Police Department will permanently close Sept. 25. Sheriff Carlton Powell said his office plans to be more active in the area to pick up the slack.
“We’ll certainly do what we have to do to make sure they’re covered,” Powell said.
Ned Simmons, mayor of Barwick, said his city’s police department was eating up around 40 percent of their budget before it was closed four years ago.
In a city of about 400 residents, Simmons said finding the money to pay for all of those expenses can be difficult.
“Us small towns just can’t afford to have a police force,” he said.
Even balancing out those costs by bringing in money by writing citations isn’t enough. Money from tickets are split up between several different divisions across the state.
“We might get a fifth of that, maybe,” Simmons said.
Adding to the problem is that police chiefs would often only stay for about a year before departing and city officials would have to begin the hiring process all over again. Simmons himself went through four police chiefs before his city’s department was abolished altogether.
Over the years, officials in Barwick have looked at different paths they could take if they ever wanted to bring the police department back. Those paths include increasing taxes or the millage rate or adding surcharges to city water bills. They’ve even looked at sharing a department with the City of Pavo.
At the end of the day, city officials decided they were better off not having that expense at all.
“We just don’t have the revenue,” Simmons said.
Pricey police departments aren’t unique to Thomas County. Walters said she’s been in contact with the mayor of Fort Gaines, a small city in Clay County that is also considering eliminating their police department for budgetary reasons.
“All of them are having to do what they’re having to do in order to stay within their budgets,” Powell said. “Some of the towns found out that police departments were their biggest expense.”
As time goes on, Powell suspects that more and more towns will start relying upon the sheriff’s office to provide coverage. He’s concerned that that trend could eventually create a strain on the sheriff’s office’s ability to efficiently respond to incidents.
“It’ll be my responsibility and hopefully the county commissioners to see that we have the proper staff,” Powell said. “If the cities don’t have the officers, then we would probably have to make the adjustments at the sheriff’s office.”
Barwick is now entirely dependent upon the Thomas County Sheriff’s Office for protection, though Simmons said that hasn’t presented an issue so far. Deputies usually arrive within about 10 minutes, and he’s never had a problem with their response times.
Leaving from Thomasville, it would take between 15-20 minutes for deputies to arrive at the outer edges of the county, though those response times can be further reduced depending on where deputies are patrolling. Powell said there are usually six sheriff’s office vehicles deployed across the county at any given time.
Though he’s happy overall with the relatively rapid response times, Simmons does want the sheriff’s office to consider opening auxiliary offices in smaller towns around the county to provide some peace of mind.
“It’s just like in Thomasville where in certain parts of town they’ll have little substations,” he said.
Creating those offices isn’t as easy as simply posting a deputy, Powell said. Those deputies would need to be trained and certified and would require liability insurance.
In Simmons’ mind, the cities could pay a fee to house the deputies as part of a contract with the sheriff’s office.
Simmons wants to gather with mayors and city council members from Pavo, Boston, Coolidge and Meigs to meet with Powell to discuss the idea and possibly pool together resources.
“We’re willing to put money in the pot to where we can have something visible around town,” he said.
Walters said officials in Meigs have considered opening an auxiliary office, but they have not yet calculated how much that might cost.
Walters herself has not yet heard from Simmons, but was open to his idea.
“I would be interested in anything that would work with the City of Meigs in order to provide the best service that we can,” she said.