Friday Night Opinion: When City Councils Run Amok – It Costs Tax Payers

Earlier in the week a small town in North Georgia called Varnell made headlines throughout various communities in the country.  The reason so many newspapers and blogs wrote about this town of just under 1,800 are for two reasons.  One, their city leadership did something unprecedented, and to here the recollection of the vent, a major decision in less than 30 minutes.  The second reason this made waves in news circle I’ll discuss at the end.

But first, let’s recap what happened.  And fair warning, I’m not going to do it like the news papers, I’m going to do it using the established facts, to paint as a complete story as can be told at this time.  Keep in mind, the news papers have an agenda, and this is also an on-going, current event.  So, there’s the expectation that as time moves forward, more details will emerge, so there’s the chance that those details may collide with what I know of this situation.

To start, the Varnell Police Department is responsible for a small community, when considering land mass, physically, it is officially reported in the US Census to be 2.5 square miles.

However, their town doesn’t sit in a square.  It’s a zig-zag pattern, that most US cities don’t contend with.  A layman’s query of the town’s shape using Google Maps tells you this is a town with a challenging spatial pattern for any law enforcement agency to patrol.

As it stands, the police department in this community is responsible for 22.5 miles of State Highways and roads that come in and out of their community, all heading to larger towns.

Chattanooga is northwest of them, and surely this means Varnell receives some “run-off” traffic, that being traffic trying to use the small community as an alternative to road stoppages, accidents, and so on.

But more importantly, it’s a town that has a very bizarre shape, because for some reason, which we’ll get to explore a little, their town limits have been scattered, literally all over the major roads in the area.  While the town has a core area which one would expect, everything else is a jigsaw puzzle of city limits, and unincorporated county.  It looks very weird.

In looking at their outline, I counted no less than 37 spaces of unincorporated area, big and small, that the city limits appear to surround…..what is this madness?  Well, I had difficulty finding solid sources, but this appears to be something similar to what happens in Oklahoma, where actual land owners have to petition for incorporation into the city limits, even if they are surrounded.  And I love Oklahoma, but it’s one law I don’t agree with.  However, what I saw with the Varnell map, I’ve not ever seen play out quite as extreme in Oklahoma.  The layout of Varnell is in need of serious fixing, and it starts with an overhaul of State law concerning annexation and incorporation of land.

Now that we’ve laid that part of this situation out, let’s talk about the one factual issue that the city laid out that led to this rapid-pace decision.  Civil liability.

City governments, County governments, and State Governments are typically some of the biggest insurance customers out there.  The federal government isn’t, because they put our collective taxes into everything they do, and if they get sued, they just cut a check on the promissory of those taxes, whether they have it actually or not, because in the end, we just keep paying taxes, that fund those issues for them.  Again, I digress.  At any rate, the governments closer to the ground don’t have that luxury.  They have to balance their checkbooks in fiscal cycles, on an annual basis, the exception being that some States have adopted a system whereby an unexpected negative may be eventually covered over the course of the following year or two.  We won’t discuss those instances, their not germane here.

City of Varnell has an annual budget, like most cities, and because they are small, everything that hits them stings.  It’s not totally their fault.  They don’t have a crystal ball, they predict everything that’s going to happen.  Life is tough, you got to have a helmet.  So, like the responsible city that they are, they purchase insurance bonds.  But those bonds have steep payments they make out of their city budget, and those bonds go up based on their level of activity, meaning, claims.

The Varnell Police Department, allegedly has had two liability claims, paid out by council vote, because most likely, their city attorney said it would be cheaper.  Government, unlike us, can’t fight for principle anymore, because it’s too costly, that’s what everyone tells them.  The two claims were the result of traffic collisions.  Those details have been lightly reported, and the information is conflicting.  And the City of Varnell’s own website presents no information concerning those claims, even though they have been awarded as a “Certified City of Ethics,” which one of the tenets is to be an environment of honesty and openness.

I did manage to find a council agenda dated April 19, 2016, at a cached site that has one sentence in that reads:  “The city’s liability insurance premium has increased for this year due to processing of 4 claims Within the 4 years.”

So if we’re going to go off the statements of the city council members, who were the other two claims against?  And are those departments facing disbandment because of the claims faced by the city?  As of now, no one is commenting on that.

There is a rather charismatic character in all of this, Sheldon Fowler.  Recently, Fowler had to resign from the city council.  He was a ‘mover and shaker’ type, so I’ve been told, and he apparently had plans to run for a bigger office.  That is until his personal behavior caught up to him.  On June 27, 2017, Fowler’s wife called 911 complaining of her own husband, being drunk and loud.  Side note, it sounds like a wonderful home they have.

When Chief Lyle Grant and Lieutenant Greg Fowler (no relation) responded, Sheldon decided that poking both officers in the chest, yelling (about his position and standing I’m sure) was a good idea.  Both officers documented the situation, and applied for an arrest warrant, rather than taking Sheldon into custody on the scene.

Now, you might be asking yourself, why did these two lawmen decide to take this route, rather than one we’ve seen on television over and over again:  Drunk and disorderly, loud, rude, and placing hands where they don’t belong, usually ends in handcuffs, right?  Yes, but these two officers knew what was coming.  And the process of getting an arrest warrant means that a County Prosecutor or State’s Attorney has to evaluate the evidence, qualify the facts in an affidavit of probable cause, and then have the arresting officers swear to the statement.

These two officers were smart.  Very smart.  Extremely smart.  They covered themselves.  Because the arrest warrant was granted, and nine days later, they arrested him on the charges.  For Sheldon, that was the nail in the coffin, and the following meeting, he had to resign, after the city council was forced to motion for it.  And here’s why I say they were forced:  It is clear by the timeline of events, that while the police department must not be highly regarded by the city council prior to this incident, that this incident caused a major headache for the other city council members.

Additionally, the 911 call that Sheldon’s wife made was more disturbing than a mere drunk spouse being belligerent.  A direct quote from the audio was “My husband is drunk, half naked, and won’t leave my two daughters alone.”  His wife also stated that she has to lock her two daughters in their bedrooms, because at night Sheldon wanders……disgusting!

I’m going to opine this:  they themselves saw the writing on the wall.  If these two very smart lawmen could do this to “Good Ol’ Boy” Sheldon, what were they going to do to them?  Considering the statement made in that old city council agenda I found, the rift between police and city council has been simmering for awhile, if we are to believe the city council about their issues with claims, then it would seem they mitigated that for quite some time.  To all of sudden bring that up as their primary concern now doesn’t make sense.

It even makes less sense when you look at the January, February, and March 2017 meeting minutes where the same council members were adjusting their city budget for payments necessary to make that police department State Certified!

That’s right, this same city council was actually taking proactive steps to remedy the claims issue.  For those that don’t know, while insurance bonds have markers for claims, like the meeting minutes claim (4 claims in 4 years), there is also a way to mitigate increases.

Think of it this way, you get auto insurance, there are certain things you can do to reduce your costs:  Have two cars for one person, both insured on the same plan; don’t have tickets, accidents (claims), have an anti-theft system installed, and so on.  Well, the Varnell Police Department was actively trying to achieve State Certification in Georgia, which would be a symbol of excellence, acknowledge by among others, insurance companies, which would mean VPD could potentially keep their bond amounts down for the city.

But, Chief Grant can’t go out and do all that on his own, he needs the city to accept the payments needed for the evaluations, for the additional infrastructure that may be needed, etc.

So if there is such an urgent need to disband the police department, why is the city council writing checks for State Certification?  Isn’t that irresponsible use of municipal funds?  Someone may want to look into that, because that’s surely waste and abuse of funds, and it certainly borders on fraud, in the sense of lying to citizens.

Getting back to Sheldon’s arrest.  After he was arrested, forced to resign his council seat, and overall publicly outed as a drunk, abusive spouse, and likely a predatory sex offender waiting to act, Chief Grant was suspended, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was contacted to investigate the matter of how Chief Grant went about his arrest.

GBI never got that message apparently, because first, the city never actually requested it.  Second, GBI stated they were not aware of anything criminal that happened on the part of Chief Grant during the incident, and the only thing GBI stated was that if Chief Grant acted “inappropriately,” that would be between him and his employer (City of Varnell).  And that’s the issue at hand it seems for this clown of a city council.  They just don’t like the fact that Chief Grant made Sheldon Fowler responsible for his reprehensible behavior.  This city council isn’t interested in justice, they’re interested in saving their own skin, and keeping their ‘Good Ol’ Boy’ system intact.  It’s foolish to allow city councils like this to carry on.  A word of advice for the citizens in Varnell: recall these people immediately, because letting them stick around means you empower their foolish behavior, and that means it only gets worse from here.

The council members claim that their city budget is $954,000, and that the Police Department costs over $300,000 to operate.  Those numbers could very well be accurate.  However, what they also point to is a line item in their budget, that they have to pay every year, regardless of whether they have a police force or not.  And that’s $50,000 a year to the County Sheriff.

Here’s a quick breakdown:  Every incorporated city has to pay a fee for “service’ from the County Sheriff that is assigned to their county.  The fee can vary from community to community, and it comes directly out of property taxes, usually.  So it’s really a “paper” item on the city budget.  The city budget is a lengthy report, and it shows literally every dollar raised through taxes and services.  Property taxes is one of those items raised.  However, if you look at the breakdowns, a chunk of that money doesn’t stay with the city, it goes to the county offices.  Things like the Assessor, Sheriff, Public Works, etc.  Why?  Because your city is within that county, and even if you don’t realize it, there are things the county provides your city, directly or indirectly, that do benefit your city.

In the case of the money going to the Sheriff, that $50,000 is for basic 911 emergency response within the city, if needed.  The phrase “if needed” is important.  Because if your city department is in the midst of a call, and the officers on duty are tied up, your citizens can continue to call 911, and a deputy can be dispatched to cover that call.  If you do away with that payment, that service goes away.  There are some communities that may not necessarily need that basic service, but that is also only one part of that fee.  That fee also goes towards covering things like evictions, on the front end.  See, if you’re a landlord, you pay fees to get a tenant evicted, but most of those fees go to the courts for their time, labor, and paperwork — that they had you fill out.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff is required to exercise the eviction, but gets next to nothing from the actual fees charged the landlord.  So instead, the Sheriff is given an upfront payment within that annual fee charged the city, typically based on the level of activity derived from civil functions the Sheriff services, mainly evictions, but also some other smaller tasks, like serving papers, etc.

To be quite honest, I’d be surprised if these city council members in Varnell knew that, because they seem to think that by relying on that $50,000, they’ll get the same level of service that their city police department provides.

Well here’s the facts, that money only covers 911 calls, like the one made to Sheldon Fowler’s residence.  What it doesn’t cover is non-emergency calls made by residents, or 911 calls determined to be non-emergency (like a burglary discovered after the fact – people are scared out of their wits, and expect service on such calls)  The Sheriff has stated he doesn’t foresee any problems with service…..SURE he doesn’t!  Because the first time the council demands his deputies start to respond to non-emergency calls, he’s going to have the meter running!

In order to get full law enforcement service, Varnell will have to contract with the Sheriff’s Office, and their council has already advised City Manager Mike Brown to look into contracting.  But then the council members keep citing the $50,000 number as the only cost.

How can you “look” into contracting, if you’re already sure of the pricing?  The statements made to direct questions by this entire group do not line up, and it speaks to the very unethical behavior occurring.  It speaks to them not being truthful about what is really motivating them, and what their actual intent is.

And back to that savings figure of $250,000.  That would never be realized.  For one, they have to pay out severances to the officers involved, and that can exceed 12 months of unemployment.  They obviously are not aware of public employee law, but when you have an established government office, you staff it, you are making career appointments.  Baring poor behavior or performance on the part of the employee, they can expect to be there for a career.  Now, it would be unrealistic if a city had been talking about disbanding their police department for five years prior to an officer’s arrival, that once it happened, that officer would be entitled to 25 years of severance.  But, they would likely have to be compensated up to an additional five years, and more likely somewhere between two to three.  Second, the city would ultimately have to chip in additional funds to the Sheriff’s Office the minute a major investigation hit in city limits, like a narcotics bust, or a stolen property ring, and so on.  That wouldn’t be covered by $50,000 dollars.  And investigations can get expensive, especially when there’s evidence to collect and store.

The council has said they intend to pass the tax savings to citizens, but also cite park improvements, and many other civic projects.  Well, it’s going to be one or the other, and if it’s a savings, it’s not going to be much.  If we were able to actually take that money every year, dollar for dollar (which will never happen), and put it back in the pockets of the tax payers in Varnell, that’s approximately 142 per person.  If we broke that down over households, it’s more like 215 dollars on the actual property tax bills within the city limits.  But that’s a year.  It’s less than 18 dollars a month.  So what the city council has actually proved, is that for 24/7 coverage, with full law enforcement service afford the police force in Varnell,  is that the city is going to be cheaper than anything the Sheriff’s Office can produce.  Varnell currently keeps two officers on duty around the clock.  The Sheriff’s Office says they have one deputy in the area at all times, and intends to patrol the city with just that one deputy.  Even if the deputies work four 12 hour shifts, that is half coverage.  We could argue that $100,000 to the Sheriff’s Office would produce 24/7 coverage…but again, that’s 911  call service only.  The level of service does not match what Varnell currently receives on it’s own, and an analysis of the numbers would bear out that the Sheriff’s Office will ultimately exceed VPD’s budget by a factor of 1.5, if we were to mirror the level of service.

There is one article that suggests the city council was upset at the length of time between the incident, and the arrest.  As stated, it took nine days for VPD to receive warrants for Sheldon Fowler’s arrest.  That could be the cost of doing business, that could be that Chief Grant wanted to take time, before taking action, because he wanted the charges to stick, if they were going to.  And it appears if he made this move intentionally or not, in terms of criminal justice, he picked the best path.  Chief Grant has had a full career in law enforcement, and I have no doubt he’s seen council members in the past do things off the municipal clock that were less than stellar.  It may be that those past incidents influenced how he handled this one, because the charges are solid, and the case is going to be hard for Fowler to fight.  His best chance is seeking a plea deal.  He’s civic career is done irregardless.   What is clear is that Chief Fowler, may not be the city council lackey that they thought he was.  But the truth is, that isn’t his job.  City councils can tell Chiefs they are fired, but they can’t tell them how to do the job.  Nor should they.  All they’ve managed to do is stick their proverbial keisters on front street for everyone to see.  And that’s nasty.

I talked about the second reason this made headlines, and here’s what that reason is: the current anti-government sentiment being pushed in the media.  There’s no argument that our various media agencies have focused on law enforcement’s use of force as a way to deride the concept of government.  Any time they hear of a use of force incident leading to a death, they are there uniformly, unless that death is of an officer.  However, no media organization can keep that kind of narrative up without adding other stories here and there, to give the proposed theme context.  And so, a small town in North Georgia becomes a lightning rod, even though the story is inaccurately covered, and relies heavily on city council members who are clearly quoted in less than truthful statements.  As much as I enjoy news stories, and as much as I appreciate journalists, this on-going “war” they want to wage on traditional government roles is unquestionably the dumbest strategy to sell advertising that they have ever collectively been involved in.  This is a huge gamble, and whether they are cognizant of it or not, they are staking their entire claim on such a narrative.  And the longer it goes on, without an actual pay off, as in they finally get the truth out there on one of these stories, the sooner their readerships are going to dwindle, their advertising dollars are going to shrink, and the more of them are going to die off.  Narrative reporting has been one of the worst experiments ever conducted by journalism, and it needs to end.  The fact that I can search a city website, and connect fact to false statements made by the sources in these stories quicker than NBC says a whole lot about what is happening with modern day journalism.

Back to Varnell, we look at these situations and say “well that’s small town politics,” but that’s an unacceptable answer.  Again, recalls should be the next move by citizens.  No debate, no “well he/she is my friend otherwise” none of that.  Just recall them, and set the tone that citizens want true, unabashed representation.  Sorry your friend is a degenerate scumbag who wants to touch children, but that’s not our problem as citizens, that’s your own personal problem to contemplate.  If it’s too much for you, resign.  Otherwise, we’re going to make you leave.

Small towns are painted this way, because this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of knee-jerk, nonsensical, decision made by people who are either unqualified, or criminal in their thinking, and the longer these sorts of displays are allowed to continue, the longer this stigma is attached to small towns, that could attract outsiders by hundreds, if not for the appearance of toxic scenes such as this.  Small towns can uncoil much of the perception around them, if they treated their small towns the same they regard them, worth protecting.

Let’s hope the citizens in Varnell step up and do something memorable.

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