Beginning next month, citizens in Alto will have to rely on the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department to handle their emergencies.
At its May 23 meeting, Alto City Council handed down a motion to disband the department for 179 days pending a solution to the city’s budget shortfall.
“The council thought that if they eliminated the police department, they would stop going in the hole,” said newly-elected Alto Mayor Monty Collins. “June 16 is the effective date unless I can come up with something or someone can come up with something and we’ll just recall them.”
Furloughing the department is expected to save the city a considerable amount of money and Collins said they hoped it would help keep them away from the possibility of bankruptcy.
“If all five were making $30,000 a year, that’s $90,000 a half (year),” he said.
During the February city council meeting, Council Member Carey Palmer proposed eliminating the department entirely, a total savings of $235,390.
Cuts to the department began as early as December 2010, according to Alto Police Chief Charles Barron.
“This started back in December with some budget cutting,” he said. “It’s just been a battle every month since.”
The culmination of those battles came with the decision to furlough the department, Barron said.
For those 179 days, Alto will rely on the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department to handle all emergency calls in the city.
Alto’s remoteness is a source of concern for Barron.
“Our concern would be how far away is a deputy going to be and what kind of situation,” he said. “If you’ve got some kind for serious criminal activity and the deputy’s a long way away, it’s common sense it’s going to be done and over with and there’s going to be serious damage when it’s over with.”
Barron was quick to point out he places no fault in CCSD.
The size of the county and staff limits means policing Alto in addition to their list of duties taps already limited resources at the sheriff’s department, according to officials.
“We’re already stretched thin to begin with,” said CCSD Detective John Ratfield. “We’re kicking around ideas and trying to figure the best way to handle it come June the 15.”
Cherokee County Sheriff James Campbell said former Alto Mayor Glenn Willhite came to him to discuss the closing of the department.
Campbell said he asked Willhite to find some other way to cut costs instead of the police.
“I’ve got a budget and I’ve got so many people to cover 1,050 square miles and certainly when a town does away with a police department, whether it’s Wells and certainly Alto because Alto’s bigger than Wells, sure it’s going to add more to my resources (and) personnel,” he said.
“Those people have to have police protection and they have to have police service and you’ve got to go in there and take care of that. It adds to our expense and man power.”
Campbell refers to the city of Wells, which fired their police officer earlier this year.
After the 179 day furlough, Barron and Collins said they hope the department can be reinstated.
According to Barron, a city council member’s reaction to that possibility said it all.
“In the meeting Monday night, we asked one council member ‘is it really going to happen in 179 days?’ and he shook his head and said ‘probably not.’,” he said.
For the members of the department, many of whom are long-time Alto citizens, the situation is bleak.
No severance pay was issued by the city and the loss of benefits and salaries is a difficult blow to take, Barron said. Despite that fact, he said none of the officers have mentioned plans to leave the area or seek employment at other departments.
“Hopefully we can get on unemployment,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of concern for them. We’re just going to have to take it one day at a time and see.”
Barron is similarly concerned for the citizens and businesses in Alto.
Collins said disbanding the department in Wells led to a rise in crime rates and homeowner’s insurance rates in the city and he has been hearing similar complaints from his citizens.
Ratfield said there is no hard evidence that crime rates rose in Wells following the firing of their police officer, but it is a logical conclusion.
“We hope that it doesn’t, but realistically, we could expect something like that at least for a period of time,” he said. “People are aware there’s not a law enforcement presence in the city, so maybe they’d try to get away with stuff they wouldn’t any time a patrol car came rolling around the corner.”
For the council and Collins, it was not an easy decision to come to, he said, but the budget is a source of growing concern.
“What the council is trying to do is keep the state from taking over the city, that’s all,” he said. “I can’t make any promises. I’ve got to find a direction and one that’s viable.”