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Election 2008: Watterson says he'll keep an eye on budget

COVINGTON - Republican candidate Bill Watterson is seeking the office of sheriff after serving nearly 20 years at the Newton County Sheriff's Office.

He said he is looking forward to expanding and improving programs already in place, as well as implementing new endeavors, while maintaining a vigilant eye on budget constraints.

"I'm very much aware that our paycheck is from tax money," Watterson said. "Newton County taxes pay for patrol cars, for this (administrative) building, the electricity. It's very important that these things are used wisely ... and not waste tax money."

Currently managing the Criminal Investigations Division, Watterson noted that despite an upsurge in the murder rate, his investigators are "batting 1.000" on solving the crimes. However, he noted that burglaries, thefts and illegal drug use are increasing dramatically, and he hopes to give more attention to solving those crimes when he is elected sheriff.

"We need to turn and directly attack those crimes," he said.

Watterson said he has a heart for young people and hopes to continue to intervene with them, helping them avoid getting into crime.

"I want to convince our youth that their decisions now will affect them for the rest of their lives," he said. "They think they're invincible in their driving and their behavior."

Questions and answers from the candidate:

What is your philosophy of law enforcement?

Watterson acknowledged that "to protect and serve," may sound like a cliche but he believes that is the mission of the sheriff's office.

"I think law enforcement is a customer service type of business," he said. "The Newton County Sheriff's Office has evolved from a small department to a large metro agency, and the things that have made us what we are are being involved with the community and being dedicated to our community."

Why do you want to be sheriff and what will be your priorities?

"I want to keep our department progressive and professional," he said.

His priorities would include such issues as domestic violence, burglaries, drugs and an increased focus on juveniles. He said that young people have always been at the forefront of his mind during his law enforcement career as he's given time and attention to such things as the "reality wrecks" at the high schools during prom season, handing out Halloween candy at Newton Plaza and giving tours of the sheriff's office to Boy Scout troops.

"I've done things like that for years because it's important to me that the youth have a positive interaction with law enforcement," he said.

Watterson said when manpower becomes available, he plans to establish a special burglary task force to work nothing but burglaries, and perhaps also task them with identifying teens who are out after curfew (anyone 16 or younger is not permitted to be on the streets from midnight to 6 a.m.), in an effort to prevent crime before it happens.

Another priority for Watterson is the continuation of the Neighborhood Watch program.

"We use that program as a partnership between the community and the Sheriff's Office," he said. "We need that partnership and that's very important to me."

What will be your biggest challenge?

Watterson says budget constraints will be a challenge as the changing economy impacts the Sheriff's Office in a variety of ways.

"We're seeing the economy have a direct link to some of our call volume," he said, pointing out that there is also an expectation that there will be a reduction in tax revenue on the horizon.

"We're really going to have to make a concentrated effort to keep our services at a high level," he said. "With the economy the way it is, we are seeing a rise in certain crimes - burglary, scrap metal thefts. We're seeing domestic violence rise, too, because one of the biggest things that causes a married couple to argue is finances."

What have people told you is their most pressing law enforcement concern?

"Safety in their homes and for their family and safety when they go shopping is what people in this community want," he said, recalling a recent burglary that occurred at a resident's home.

"It's the first time she's ever been the victim of a crime and she felt so violated. They went in after cash, but also took Cokes and stuff out of her refrigerator. That really violated and intruded in her life," he said.

How will you combat illegal drugs?

Watterson said he would make the attack from three points - supply, demand and education.

"We're going to work on supply and demand with our undercover and street-level narcotics operations and we're going to hit education with D.A.R.E.," he said, adding that he is open to looking at other drug educational programs that are available.

He said he is also interested in working with the schools and churches in educating youngsters about the dangers of illicit drugs.

"There are a lot of pastors who've gotten together to target youth and their congregations to make them aware of their responsibilities and the bad things that come with drugs," he said.

How will you ensure school safety?

Watterson said he would continue the zero-tolerance policy for students who bring drugs or weapons into the school, or who break school disciplinary rules.

"We've got to take away the fear in our schools so they can get back to education," he said, adding that he would continue to work through resource officers and with school personnel and school board members toward that goal.

He admitted there have been problems with "hybrid gangs," or those who emulate and organize like more well-known gangs, and he would continue educating school personnel and the community by having members of the NCSO Gang Unit and investigators make talks on what to look for.

"A lot of these gangs are forcing kids to violate the law and rules in school as part of their initiation," he said.

What would you say to voters to convince them to vote for you?

"The biggest thing is I'm here in this community. I've always been here. I'm raising my family here, and the concerns I have for my family are the same as everybody else: We want to be safe," he said. "I'm committed to our community and I've been showing that for 19 years. I will have an open door policy. All anyone has to do is call me, and if they'll give me enough time to call them back, they are going to get a call. The community's concerns are important to me. I love Covington and Newton County, and I don't want us to become like DeKalb, Clayton or Fulton. I want to help keep Newton County a nice community to live in," Watterson said.

SideBar: The Watterson file

Age: 41

Party: Republican

Occupation: A lieutenant with the Newton County Sheriff's Office, where he has served for 19 years, currently in charge of the Criminal Investigations Division overseeing criminal investigations and field operations.

Personal: Born and raised in Newton County; served in the Air Force where he worked as a security specialist; married to Yolonda who teaches second grade at Heard-Mixon Elementary School. They are the parents of two sons, McKenzie, 10, and Micah, 7. The family attends Eastridge Community Church.

Education: Graduate of Newton County Comprehensive High School; attended the Community College of the Air Force; Command College of Columbus State University; and the Carl Vincent Institute of Government Management of the University of Georgia.