Ga. senators worried about law enforcement furloughs

By James Salzer for Atlanta Journal-Constitution via PoliceOne

ATLANTA — Georgia senators expressed concern Wednesday over budget plans that would force state troopers and GBI agents to take nearly five weeks off without pay in the coming year.

The GBI and Department of Public Safety — like much of state government — are personnel-heavy. So there was no way for agency leaders to develop required plans to cut spending without eliminating jobs or furloughing staffers. For GBI staffers and state troopers, agency proposals would require up to 24 furlough days in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.

“It was a very difficult decision,” DPS Commissioner Gary Vowell told a Senate budget subcommittee. “We’re counting nickles and dimes and looked everywhere we can and been as innovative as we can without laying people off.

“I am open for recommendations, but with 14% (in cuts), I don’t see any other way.”

Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, the chairman of the subcommittee, told Vowell: “I certainly have grave concerns about the 24 furlough days. You were undermanned before this all started.”

Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, a member of the subcommittee, told the DPS commissioner, “We want to do what we can to make sure you have the resources to do your job on a daily basis.”

The hearing Wednesday came a day after Senate subcommittees began reviewing budget proposals for the upcoming year. The 2020 session was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and lawmakers will restart it next month.

The leaders of the House and Senate budget committees and the Office of Planning and Budget sent letters to state agencies May 1 requesting plans to cut spending 14% — or more than $3.5 billion — in the upcoming fiscal year because of the coronavirus recession.

Under budget plans submitted last week, more than 1,000 filled jobs would be eliminated and tens of thousands of state employees would be furloughed.

The Department of Corrections said it would close several facilities. It currently houses 51,000 inmates.

While some agencies — including the Corrections Department — have said they could cut 14% without furloughing employees, other, such as the GBI and the Georgia State Patrol, said they couldn’t. Both agencies also said they would eliminate or freeze vacant jobs.

The state crime lab, for instance, would freeze vacant scientist and lab technician positions.

GBI Director Vic Reynolds said up to 28 agent positions would be left vacant, and that “boots-on-the-ground” officers would take furloughs like everyone else.

“We’ll probably have to be more circumspect about the kind of cases we get involved in around the state,” Reynolds said.

“It will probably lend itself to violent crime, gang-related crime, human trafficking,” he said. “I don’t envision in the future the bureau responding to assist in burglary calls or nonviolent property crimes the way the situation is today.”

The DPS would delay a new trooper class a year and freeze vacant positions, in addition to the furloughs. The agency currently has about 500 troopers working Georgia roads.

Harper indicated that lawmakers would work to reduce the number of furlough days for law enforcement agencies.

“Obviously, public safety is one of the more important duties the government provides for the safety and security of its citizens,” he said.

What that could mean is that some agencies that said they could get by without furlough days, or with very few, may be asked to take deeper cuts.

Included in the budget plans submitted last week was a $3.6 million spending reduction for accountability courts.

The courts, which were greatly expanded by then-Gov. Nathan Deal, allow defendants to avoid prison time if they stay sober, get treatment, receive an education and find a job. The courts are set up for drug addicts, drunken drivers, the mentally ill and veterans who’ve been charged largely with nonviolent crimes and low-level offenses, and they have been highly popular with lawmakers.

Hall County Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin, the head of the courts’ council, said the spending cuts would mean the elimination of eight to 12 courts throughout the state. She said about 1,900 fewer people would be able to participate in the programs.

“That will be 1,900 folks who are currently working,” she said. “They have continued to work during the pandemic. They are working in fast-food restaurants, they are working in chicken plants in Gainesville, they are working on construction sites and they are mowing our lawns.

“Those are people who will likely wind up in either local jails or prisons if they don’t have the opportunity to do this,” she said.

The budget proposal said the state would lose almost $35 million in savings it would have received by keeping those people out of prison.

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said the program has been highly successful in his city.

He added: “These are painful cuts. The (funding) pie is only so big, and we have to cut the slices.”

At the end of the hearing, Albers announced he would donate his $17,000 legislative salary this year to “first responders and people in need.” Lawmakers are also likely to consider a Senate bill to cut their salaries, since furloughs will mean pay cuts for rank-and-file state employees.McClatchy-Tribune News Service