The obscure study that may finally bring peace

in Bill Rauch/Contributors/The Bluffton News/Voices by

By Bill Rauch

Elected officials acting on our behalves, and indeed all of us, should be careful what we wish for.

The Town of Hilton Head Island’s recent decision to hire a consultant to look into whether the town is getting what it is paying for from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department will, my sources say, show that the town is getting a great deal. Why? Because the town reimburses the county for the time deputies who work Hilton Head, including a couple of detectives, spend on the job. But almost all their back-up from headquarters comes for free.

“Free,” is an odd word here. Nothing in law enforcement is free, of course. “Free” in this context just means the dollars Hilton Head does not pay for command, human resources, law enforcement dispatch, administration, training and re-training, records management, and the 35 other services described in the Town’s “’Exhibit C’ updated 4/5/16” that appears on the Town’s website.

These are the services that keep deputies on the road and that don’t come out of the Town’s budget. These are the services that come from the Sheriff’s budget that is provided him by Beaufort County. These are law enforcement services that help make Hilton Head Island a safer place that are paid for by all of us.

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That these “hidden” costs are paid for by all the county’s residents is why, as the graphic shows, the Town of Hilton Head Island can allocate only 9 percent of its general fund budget to law enforcement when the other Beaufort County municipalities are spending a quarter to a third of their general funds on trying to keep their areas of jurisdiction safe.

How can that be? It is because the police departments in the other towns – Beaufort, Bluffton, Port Royal – pay many of these costs themselves. That is the irritating inequity.

A close and fair-minded look at this relationship by Hilton Head’s consultant, instead of providing fodder for the Town in their upcoming negotiation with the county, may very well provide instead a road map for what the other Beaufort County municipalities should be asking for from the county in order for them to get the same bennies Hilton Head is getting.

Let’s not forget – whatever it shows – the consultant’s report will have been paid for with public monies and will therefore be available to the public when it is in its final form under the Freedom of Information laws. The report will surely make very interesting reading for the city manager in Beaufort and the town managers and their finance chiefs in Bluffton and in Port Royal.

This is not to say the other municipalities aren’t getting other bennies. About half the calls in the Beaufort city limits on Lady’s Island, I am told, are answered by Sheriff’s deputies. Once a trickle, with new annexations – and a new Walmart coming! – the numbers of these calls for service are sure to increase.

Beaufort’s Hwy. 170 Walmart, for example, accounted for 8 percent of the non-traffic crimes reported in Beaufort in 2014, the most recent period for which statistics are available. Hilton Head’s Walmart accounted for 4 percent of the 2014 non-traffic crimes in that jurisdiction.

Here’s an example of where the Hilton Head study could help Beaufort. Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy who has just finally staffed his office back up to its 2008 levels is dealing with a lot more calls for service than he did in 2008, many of them on Lady’s Island. Citing the favorable terms under which Hilton Head receives county law enforcement support, Chief Clancy could effectively argue that Sheriff’s deputies should be picking up the other half of the calls for service on Lady’s Island. Being free of Lady’s Island would free up city police officers to get back to what they were doing in 2008 and which it is badly needed that they be able to do now: get out of their cruisers and walk beats in the Northwest Quadrant … and on Bay Street.

Bluffton could make the same argument for the New River area, and Port Royal could say the same about the areas in Shell Point and the Paris Island Gateway area that are now within the Town of Port Royal.

Some Town of Hilton Head Island-watchers say that what the study’s all about is Hilton Head’s legitimate wish finally to run their own law enforcement show. And that may be exactly what the result of the study is, although if the study is done fairly that end will likely not be achieved in the way Hilton Head’s leadership anticipated.

The other municipalities have been saying for 25 years that Hilton Head gets a sweetheart deal on law enforcement. If it is fairly done, the fine print in the consultant’s report, when it is analyzed by the other managers and their finance people, will show the sweetheart deal. Then the other managers – pressured by their elected officials – will want the Sheriff to match for them what Hilton Head’s getting. This will put pressure on Beaufort County – and the Sheriff – to make Hilton Head pay their fair share.

And those tough negotiations will very likely provide the impetus for prompting the Town Council to do what many – and now the new mayor too – have wanted to do for the past 20 years: set up their own police department.

When that step is finally achieved the inequities – perceived, real, alleged and denied – and the irritation they cause will finally end. The playing field will finally be level. Then, as with the end of the bygone annexation wars, the governments will all get along a little better.

And that will be good for all of us.

A reporter, publisher, ghostwriter and author, Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.