Leaders in the local faith community have stepped up to a different kind of pulpit, to urge local government leaders not to cut public-safety funding in next year’s budget.
Several church pastors, mindful of the possibility of reducing funding for the Henry County police and fire departments, have told county commissioners to leave first responders alone.
“We need to do everything we can to be able to empower these men and women, to do their jobs successfully,” said Paul Leslie, pastor of McDonough Christian Church.
Leslie’s remarks came in response to the possibility of the county laying off more than 60 Henry County police officers, and closing a Henry County fire station.
Last month, County Manager Fred Auletta said the potential changes are part of a “worst-case” scenario for Henry’s government leaders, as they prepare a budget for the coming year.
Commission Chairman Elizabeth “B.J.” Mathis, said there have been “rumors and speculation” in recent weeks, regarding decisions by the board. She acknowledged that financial difficulties have taken a toll on the area.
“Henry County has been considered a bedroom community,” she said. “Seventy percent of our budget comes from residential properties. In 2009, we had a budget of $132 million. Our budget today is $112 million, a $20 million difference than just a few years ago, because of declining property values ... We have 30,000 more citizens in the county that we’re having to provide for, with $20 million less than we had just a few years ago,” added Mathis.
“We, at the county, are not finished with this budget,” said Auletta, following a budget presentation, in March. “It is a process ... I want to start planning for the worst case today. What I’m trying to do is to basically alert the commissioners that this is what it looks like it could be, worst case. We can hope that it’s a whole bunch better, and we can pray it’s a whole bunch better, but certain things have to happen to make sure.”
Leslie, however, said although police and fire personnel do an “incredible job” of serving area residents, they need adequate tools to do their jobs well.
“If we make additional cuts in our public-servant area, eventually there will be a public outcry,” said Leslie. He claimed several Henry police officers have left the agency in recent years. Leslie pleaded with commissioners to do their part to protect police by giving them raises regularly.
“There are a lot of men and women who serve this county well, and they do it because it is a calling,” said Leslie. It is a passion. They’re not in it for the money ... If we don’t establish a pay scale, the men and women that we ask to serve are unable to make long-term plans for their families.”
Stan Berrong, senior pastor of Glen Haven Baptist Church, in McDonough, serves as a chaplain for the Henry County Police Department. He said his interaction with officers has revealed that opportunities for pay increases have been slim in recent years.
“They’ve got to have hope for a future in this area,” said Berrong. “We cannot afford to lose individuals with experience. I don’t want to fly in an airplane or drive a car that’s built by an inexperienced mechanic or engineer. I don’t want to have surgery done by physician that’s inexperienced in surgery. I don’t want to live in a house that’s been built by a homebuilder that’s inexperienced. And I don’t think we can afford to live in a community where we continue to lose experienced people in our public-safety area.”
Berrong added that if the county were to close a fire station, insurance rates would likely increase for residents.
“If something’s going to go up, I’d rather something go up that would secure our public-safety area,” he said.
District I Commissioner, Warren Holder, commended Berrong. However, Holder said there are other items to consider when creating a county budget.
“Public safety is most important, but it’s not the only important thing,” said Holder. “What about driving on a road that’s being maintained by less than qualified people? ... What you’re saying is exactly right, but it’s not the only issue that we’re faced with.”
Berrong’s predecessor at Glen Haven Baptist, Pastor Emeritus Ralph Easterwood, has participated in more than 900 ride-a-longs with Henry Police officers. He said economic woes at the police department have affected morale there.
“They leave us for better-paying jobs, and this is happening in all the precincts,” said Easterwood. “We know there’s a tremendous need for police officers to be here. The fire station, the paramedics and [firefighters] are very important to us ... We certainly want the efficiency of our firemen and paramedics to be with us.
“My sympathy goes out to you all because of the budget, and the cuts you are having to make,” Easterwood told the commissioners. “But, to keep Henry County a safety place to live in ... I feel like we really need to take them into consideration on their salary structures, on their retirement, on what they’re going to stay here for.”
John Dewberry, pastor of Community Bible Fellowship, in Hampton, said everyday residents are not the only ones who benefit from the efforts of public-safety personnel.
“These guys aren’t just responsible for protecting us,” he said. “They’re responsible for protecting you. Let’s look at the numbers, be realistic, and take care of these guys.”
M.C. “Buddy” Ryan, of McDonough, also directed comments to the commissioners on behalf of police and fire department personnel. Though not a pastor of a church, Ryan, an 18-year Henry resident, said he has gotten to know public-safety workers through programs like the Citizens Police Academy.
Ryan questioned the concept of laying off police officers, in light of recent purchases approved by the commissioners.
“It concerns me when I see us buying airports and golf courses, but we can’t take care of our public servants the way we should be,” he said.
Commissioners, in 2011, bought the Atlanta South Regional Airport, formerly known as Tara Field, in Hampton, from Clayton County. In 2007, the board approved the purchase of the Cotton Fields Golf Course, in McDonough.