Council votes to cut size of town police force – Coastal Observer
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Council votes to cut size of town police force

The town police will provide coverage 12 hours a day under the staffing plan approved by the council rather than the 20 hours currently provide.

The town of Pawleys Island will cut its police force by one officer and reduce coverage to 12 hours a day in order to help build up its reserves for future capital projects. The move will save $50,000 to $60,000 a year, according to Administrator Ryan Fabbri.

The decision by Town Council, made as part of the town’s annual budget process, is the second reduction to the police department in three years. The council reduced the department from five people to four in 2019 and used the savings to increase pay for the remaining officers. That marked the end of 24-hour coverage.

The town now has coverage 20 hours a day. It relies on the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office to answer calls during the other four hours.

Council members said they would like to see more service from the sheriff’s office.

“We are indeed paying taxes for county services,” Council Member Rocky Holliday said. “We don’t really count on them very often.”

Pawleys Island doesn’t have a municipal property tax. It expects to receive over half of its $1.9 million in revenue in the coming year from state and local taxes on short-term rentals.

The police department accounts for over a third of the town’s  $1.5 million in expenditures.

The town’s general fund has a balance of $917,000, but Fabbri has projected that the town will start tapping into that reserve in the next few years to fund operations. At the same time, the town is trying to rebuild its beach fund to pay a share of a renourishment project that is expected within the next 10 years. It also wants to make improvements to drainage on the island and dredge areas of Pawleys Creek that are filling with sand.

Council Member Guerry Green has questioned the size of the police force in the past. He said that doesn’t mean defunding. “That’s a buzz word,” he said. “Maintain a good police force but a reduced force.”

Bill Caughman, a north end resident who was the only speaker during the council’s budget hearing, said “I have real concerns about this defund the police.”

Growth on the mainland will continue to put pressure on Pawleys Island for beach and creek access, and that will impact property owners on the ends of the island where public access is available. 

Caughman also pointed out that the sheriff’s office won’t enforce the town’s ordinances, like those for illegal parking.

“If Georgetown County can’t enforce the laws of Pawleys Island, what good are they going to do?” he asked.

When the town was formed in 1985, the sheriff’s office provided a deputy who enforced the local ordinances under contract. The town created its own police department in 1993 with a chief, one officer and part-time officer. By 2011, the town had a chief and four officers.

Chief Mike Fanning said the force grew with the calls for service. The increase in calls came from a growing population in the area and from the ability of people to call police by cellphone.

At the same time, Fanning said, the number of burglaries and break-ins – including vehicles – decreased. That was due to the patrol schedule, he added.

The town also installed cameras on the two causeways onto the island that read license plates. That helped flag drivers with violations and helped locate suspects in incidents on the island. The town later added video cameras at a popular beach accesses. He said the department could use more.

But Fanning told the council that the technology isn’t a substitute for staff because someone has to review the video and respond to the calls.

“I think our No. 1 goal is to keep everyone safe,” Mayor Brian Henry said. “No one’s talking about defunding the police.”

Since the town relies on tourism taxes for revenue, a reputation as an unsafe destination would impact finances, he added.

Henry said the Litchfield Beaches are in the same situation, and they rely on coverage from the sheriff’s office. “There’s no reason to expect that we would have any less protection here,” he said.

Henry is concerned that the town will start dipping into its operating reserves. “We need some type of rainy-day fund,” he said.

Although the town has talked about – and generally ruled out – several proposals for raising revenue, Henry said the council needs to make that a priority in the coming year.

“It’s not like we can sit back and hope this problem goes away,” Holliday said. “We’ve got to find a way to balance these things.”

“Right-sizing” the police department, will help stabilize the operating reserve, he said.

Council Member Sarah Zimmerman cast the only vote against the cut.

“People who live on the island have come to expect the level of service we receive from the police department,” she said.

She agreed that technology has helped reduce crime, but also pointed out that there were objections to the tag readers because people thought it would be an invasion of their privacy.

Zimmerman also noted that there are more full-time residents in the Litchfield Beaches, so fewer vacant beach houses to burglarize.

“They have a dedicated beach patrol that comes out during the summer,” Fanning said. “I don’t think they’re going to send their beach patrol down to patrol our beach.”

Green said Fanning should ask the county to do that.

“We’re not talking about reducing our coverage during the summer,” Henry said.

Fanning told him that with a staff of three “you’ll definitely see a reduction.” He has a roster of part-time officers to cover for vacations, illnesses and training days, but they have other jobs as well.

The department will continue at its current level until Sgt. Traci Milligan retires in March. The town will also cut the purchase of a new police vehicle from the 2022 budget, since the three-member department will only need two vehicles.

LOCAL EVENTS

Meetings

Georgetown County Board of Education: First and third Tuesdays, 5:30 p.m., Beck Education Center. For details, go to gcsd.k12.sc.us.

Georgetown County Council: Second and fourth Tuesdays, 5:30 p.m., Howard Auditorium, Hawkins Street, Georgetown. For details, go to georgetowncountysc.org.

Pawleys Island Town Council: Second Mondays, 5 p.m. Virtual meetings.For details, go to townofpawleysisland.com.

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