April 29, 2014

More police officers, court staff proposed in Rock Hill budget

Rock Hill’s City Council is considering hiring 18 more city employees next year to take on various roles that officials say will help manage the city’s recent growth and keep up with growing police and court needs.

Rock Hill’s City Council is considering hiring 18 more city employees next year to help manage the city’s recent growth and keep up with growing police and court needs.

Eight of those employees would work in Rock Hill’s Law Center on Black Street in downtown, which is being expanded. Rock Hill’s management staff told the City Council last week that four more police officers and two administrative assistants are needed in the Police Department.

The council will decide in June whether to allocate taxpayer dollars for the new positions.

Over the past 20 years, Rock Hill’s Police Department staff has grown by 50 percent.

Recently, Chief Chris Watts led the department in changing the number of Rock Hill’s officer patrol zones from six to nine. With four new officers, the department would use 10 police zones.

Adding more zones by shrinking existing police zones does not change the department’s coverage area. Using smaller zones means more officers are concentrated in areas across the city.

The change helps Rock Hill lower its emergency call response times and allows officers to get to know their beats better.

“Every time you shrink zones, your coverage is better,” Rock Hill City Manager David Vehaun said last week during a City Council budget meeting.

The department has also recently implemented 12-hour shifts for officers. Before, officers worked 10-hour shifts and often worked multiple weekends in a row. By extending the work day, the department is now able to schedule officers for three-day weekends twice a month.

The process of hiring a new officer is lengthy from recruitment to state certification and on-the-job training. Rock Hill often has new officers ready to go to the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy but space is not always available, Vehaun said.

“We need the legislature to help us here,” he said, adding that Rock Hill officials may soon talk with state lawmakers about the need to expand the police academy.

Adding four more officers will cost the city about $310,000 each year, which includes the officers’ salaries, equipment and police vehicles. As the department looks to hire more officers, city officials say the department is also searching for more officers to fill several vacancies.

Proposed spending on all new employees, including the new officers, in the upcoming fiscal year is $327,000. Rock Hill’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. Many of the employees would be hired after Jan. 1.

With more police officers on the street, Rock Hill’s Municipal Court is processing more tickets and criminal charges.

More court employees are needed to keep up with the growing caseload, Vehaun said last week. He and others propose hiring a new court clerk and a full-time assistant solicitor to prosecute criminals.

With a second court room nearly complete at the Law Center, Vehaun says the need exists for more court staff members. The $1.7 million Law Center expansion will also provide more office and training space for the Police Department.

Construction at the Law Center started last summer and finished in less than one year. During construction, traffic was blocked from entering the Law Center or York County Library branch parking lot from Black Street.

Earlier this week, city officials authorized re-opening the road and a small police and court parking lot.

Downtown projects spur need for new position

City leaders are also considering adding employees for Rock Hill’s utility services and in the parks, recreation and tourism department. A proposed spending plan for next year also includes a new position that would aid Rock Hill’s handling of major infrastructure and construction projects.

Several construction projects have been ongoing in and around downtown Rock Hill for the past year. The complexity of those projects with many different contractors on site at once was one reason Vehaun feels the city could benefit from a new project manager, he said.

The building activity has shut down some parts of downtown streets or made traffic detours necessary for the past several months. Though the projects have gone well, Vehaun said he and others think the city could operate more efficiently with a designated project manager.

He proposes organizing a “project management team” made up of current employees who oversee areas such as transportation, utilities and engineering. A new supervisor would be hired to lead the team.

The new model would centralize the city’s needs and responsibilities during major projects such as building parks or replacing underground utility lines, Vehaun said. Currently, department leaders manage their own construction needs for specific projects.

The main goal isn’t to make projects finish faster, he said, but “to be more intentional about our planning.”

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