Politics & Government

Chester Co. proposes tax hike to pay for deputies dropped by schools, stem courts backlog

Chester County would be able to hire another prosecutor and public defender to attack the county judicial system’s lengthy backlog of criminal cases, if the county’s proposed 2015-16 budget takes effect.
Chester County would be able to hire another prosecutor and public defender to attack the county judicial system’s lengthy backlog of criminal cases, if the county’s proposed 2015-16 budget takes effect. aburriss@heraldonline.com

Chester County would be able to keep four sheriff’s deputies that might have been lost after school officials decided to replace school resource officers with private security guards, and a backlogged court system could hire another prosecutor and public defender, if the county’s proposed 2015-16 budget takes effect.

To pay for the increased spending, County Supervisor Shane Stuart said, property taxes would go up by as little as $7 or as much as $50 on a $100,000 home, if the Chester County Council approves later this month.

Some county leaders already have balked at any tax increase.

Chester County, with about 33,000 people, is one of the poorest counties in the state. But county leaders are wrestling with problems ranging from overworked courts to ever-growing gang-related crime. Law enforcement officials have said the county needs more officers on the streets to keep the public safe. But that means a proposed tax increase, said and chairman of the county council.

The proposal would not add any deputies, Sheriff Alex Underwood said, just maintain the number he now has.

A public hearing on the estimated $17.4 million budget, which would take effect July 1, is set for 6 p.m. June 15, with final approval likely coming at a June 29 County Council meeting.

Stuart has laid out two options to pay for the increased spending:

▪ A $7 annual tax increase on a $100,000 home, which he called a short-term fix that would still require the county to dip into the county reserves.

▪ A $50 per year tax increase on a $100,000 home, which he said would pay for the public safety upgrades without further draining the county’s reserve funds.

Stuart said he knows that a tax increase would be unpopular with many.

But “we have to stop the bleeding,” he said. “We have to fix the problem” of using county savings to pay for annual costs.

The budget proposal would absorb the $100,000 cost of keeping four deputies who had been assigned as school resource officers before Chester County schools opted to use private security starting July 1. The deputies likely would be assigned to patrol and other duties.

Since he was elected in 2012, Underwood has asked the County Council for money to hire more deputies. He said he was not surprised that the budget proposal includes keeping the four deputies who had been school officers, but it does not address the sheriff’s office’s need for more “boots on the ground.”

Underwood, who publicly blasted the council in December when asking for more deputies, said he has the same size staff as when he took office, despite the high-profile gang killing of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams last year – and more gang incidents last week.

“I don’t know what else it will take to get what I need from the council,” Underwood said Tuesday.

Stuart hopes adding a prosecutor and a public defender will help move cases through the court system. Chester County is part of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which has the worst backlog in South Carolina.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065

Gang task force recommendations

The Chester County Council has received recommendations from a county gang task force that has met several times since its inception following the November shooting death of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams.

Chester County has more documented gang members in at least five gangs – more than 170 – than York County with 137, the task force reported, although York County’s population is eight times higher than Chester County’s. Gangs in Chester accounted for at least 47 crimes in 2014 – less than 2 percent of all crime – but many of those crimes were violent and included at least three homicides.

Task force members included top sheriff’s deputies, county councilmen and others from county government, schools and the private sector. No action was taken Monday night, but the County Council soon will have to decide whether to act on proposals to add police, shift personnel at the sheriff’s office, or other options.

Some task force members questioned Sheriff Alex Underwood’s department structure, saying it is top-heavy with managers. Underwood has said that he has units for patrol, investigations, administration, training and other units that require the department be staffed the way he has it.

Underwood has said the task force is “all talk,” when what the public needs is action and more deputies to combat violent gangs.

Andrew Dys

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