RCSO grant application approved

Jeff Wigington

Jeff Wigington

CONYERS -- The Rockdale County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff Jeff Wigington came to an agreement to apply for a federal grant to hire more deputies, but Thursday night the topic became more political and tensions more obvious between officials.

Rockdale County Commission Chairman Richard Oden announced the agreement at Thursday's Rockdale Homeowners and Civic Groups Coalition meeting. The agreement, in the form of a letter from Wigington, states that the application for the federal COPS hiring grant will ask for funding of four deputy positions instead of seven. Wigington also agreed the cost of uniforms and patrol cars would be absorbed in his 2012 budget.

In the letter, Wigington says he believes he can cover the costs through savings recouped from vacant positions that come up through the year "assuming the Sheriff's Office is funded for 2012 at the present level of $18.7 million."

However, at Thursday's meeting, Oden laid out his opposition to the grant by noting the Sheriff's Office budget has grown from $14 million in 2008 to $17.3 million this year, while incidents of crime dropped over the same period. (Editor's Note: There apparently is a discrepancy of more than $1 million between Oden's sheriff's office budget figures and Wigington's.)

The grant authorization was a complete turnaround by the BOC. The BOC declined to place the application on its regular meeting agenda Tuesday with the deadline to file looming Wednesday. Oden said the agreement came during an executive session after Tuesday's meeting and was finalized Wednesday.

During Thursday night's Rockdale Homeowners and Civic Groups Coalition meeting, Oden said he was attempting to be fiscally responsible in not allowing the grant application to be heard because of matching funds which would obligate the county. The COPS grant would cover salaries, benefits, vehicles and equipment of the positions for three years while the county would be responsible for all costs in the fourth year.

Oden then asked for questions and Donald Ferguson, an announced candidate for sheriff who ran against Wigington during the last election cycle, was called on. Ferguson "challenged the Board of Commissioners" to perform an audit on the Sheriff's Office's community outreach policing program. He said the program was not performing its role.

People attending the meeting interrupted Ferguson and charged that he was using the meeting for political means.

Gerald Burger, president of the Ga. Highway 20 Coalition of Homeowners Association, protested the loudest. He felt the meeting was "unprofessional" because discussion on the Sheriff's Office was not on the agenda.

"I guess the straw that broke the camel's back was when Ferguson started talking," Burger said Friday. "That's when I interrupted and said this is just not right. He's just up there campaigning. It was obvious it was planned. Ferguson has never been to one of these meetings before."

Wigington said Friday he, too, was unaware that his department would be discussed at the Thursday meeting. The Homeowners Coalition is an information session held once a quarter. County officials provide an update of projects and their departments and residents have the opportunity to ask questions.

Wigington said his budget has grown because of the expansion of the jail that was completed in 2009 and added 400 beds.

"The jail doubled in size and that added to the cost in operations and hiring personnel to run it," Wigington said Friday. "It's 100,000 square feet of heated space added while very little has been added to law enforcement. If I had known I was going to be the topic of discussion, I would have been there to defend myself."