Sawmills wants to beef up police force

Mar. 07, 2013 @ 10:36 PM

Sawmills doesn’t have a police force, but it does have crime.

From March 6, 2012, to March 6, 2013, the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office responded to 2,958 calls in Sawmills. It was the largest call volume in the county – fitting for the county’s most densely populated town.

To combat the problem, the Sawmills Town Council is considering signing a contract with the sheriff’s office for off-duty Caldwell County sheriff’s deputies to patrol the town.

The town would pay on a contract basis for the services of the deputies – many are looking for extra money and extra hours. The town would be able to choose the hours and times the deputies would work.

Other towns have negotiated similar deals, including Cedar Rock east of Lenoir. Capt. B.J. Fore said it’s a system that works.

“I’m a prime believer that the biggest deterrent of crime is that marked car,” Fore said. “If I’ve got a car that’s dedicated to Sawmills, that is patrolling Sawmills, then it’s going to deter crime. We’ll see numbers drop. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Some members of the council expressed strong support for the idea.

Councilman Donnie Potter said that in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., he’d like to seean officer dedicated to patrolling Sawmills Elementary School.

“We all say that, 'Oh, it won’t happen here, it won’t happen here,'” Potter said. “Well, Sandy Hook said that too.”

In addition to safety issues, economic development negotiations can stop when a business hears there’s no law enforcement in a town, Potter said.

Paying to have an officer patrol the town five hours a day for a year would cost about $36,500.

Mayor Pro-Tem Johnny Wilson acknowledged the expense was significant, but said he still supported the measure.

“It’s not about spending money,” Wilson said. “It’s about doing the right thing for the people of Sawmills.”

But some council members questioned whether an increased police presence was worth the expense.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Councilwoman Trena McRary Kirby said as the measure was being discussed. “Spend, spend, spend, and we’ve got people struggling to pay their property taxes.”

McRary Kirby questioned why the county wasn’t regularly patrolling Sawmills in the first place. Caldwell sheriff’s deputies patrol each town in the county about eight times a day, Fore said. But that’s not enough to allow for proactive crime prevention, he said.

“We’re being very reactive in what we’re doing,” he said. “I’m ashamed to say that. I can’t do a lot of proactive stuff right now.”

Council members also discussed the location of a sheriff’s substation being planned for the lower end of the county. Right now it’s set to be located in Granite Falls, but some members of council asked Fore to if the substation could be set up in Sawmills, instead.

Fore said he didn’t have a preference for the location of the substation – he just needs a presence in the lower, more populated part of Caldwell County.

But Granite Falls already has available, county-owned office space, while Sawmills would have to pay to upgrade existing space.

One initiative that’s not on the table is a full-time police department in Sawmills.

“We can’t afford one,” Potter said. “We never will be able to afford one, not without a significant tax increase.”

An informal straw poll at the council’s budget meeting Thursday showed three council members in favor of contracting with the sheriff’s department and two opposed. The matter will next be discussed April 4 at the town’s second fiscal 2013-14 budget meeting.

Ultimately, it will come down to how much money the town is willing to spend.

“I hate to think that we’re a commodity,” Fore said. “But in this situation, we’re a commodity.”