HAMLET — Chief Scott Waters spent a long time standing before City Council on Tuesday, as member Jesse McQueen critiqued both the Police Department’s budget request and public perception of Hamlet as gang infested.
Behind Waters sat Capt. Marc Terry, accompanied by a milk crate full of crime statistics, should Waters need them.
“I am not in any way criticizing you or your department,” McQueen said, praising its effectiveness in helping to keep crime relatively low. “I’m not here to try to play gotcha.”
Still, McQueen said, the department’s budget request — which included a plea for an officer to deal solely with drugs and gangs — was riddled with conflicting and confusing crime statistics. Other figures, he said, could lead viewers to improper inferences, the specific one being that Hamlet has more violent crime than do other cities or the county as a whole.
“This is what we’ve got to make a decision (with),” McQueen said, pointing to what he considered errors of consistency.
“If you don’t agree with anything else,” he told Waters, “you’d have to agree the statistics are all over the place.”
Waters did not agree or disagree but merely appeared uncomfortable.
McQueen and council member Johnathan Buie also said Hamlet shouldn’t have to go it alone in fighting gangs and drugs; they should be able to rely on help from the county, since Hamlet residents also pay county taxes.
Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons has drawn up a task force that includes local law enforcement, McQueen noted.
“A task force does not hire officers” but can be effective in fighting both gangs and drugs, he said. “It utilizes officers who are in place. I just don’t see how hiring another officer in Hamlet trumps that.”
Later in the more than half-hour presentation, McQueen listed a handful of things “this council” had done for the department to finance training and personnel, including paying for a K-9 and officer, and paying overtime instead of forcing officers to accrue compensatory time.
In some ways, the discussion was moot.
City Manager Jonathan Blanton already has formalized the city’s draft budget, which he presented Tuesday, calling it “frugal, fair and forward thinking.”
The budget does not contain the $48,000 a new narcotics/gang officer would cost. That proposed hire remains on a back burner alongside other items, awaiting better revenue projections.
Which leads to the other thing stuck in McQueen’s craw: media coverage of Hamlet over the past year, specifically since it called off its July 4 festivities. Chief among the offenders both McQueen and Buie mentioned as raising their ire was a TV report that focused on the council’s supposed refusal to hire a gang officer.
“The media portrayal has not been accurate,” McQueen said, apparently referring to more than the television report but refusing to spread the blame by name. Both he and Buie told Waters they would speak with him privately to elaborate.
“What I’ve seen in the media … that doesn’t represent us at all,” McQueen said. “That doesn’t represent us, and it’s not fair.”
He also took aim at people who attended meetings and snickered at council debate, or who took the town to task on Facebook.
“If you don’t like it,” he said, “leave.” Plenty of other towns have houses for sale, he said.
But the council wasn’t finished talking about public safety when McQueen finished and Waters finally sat down. Both Buie and council member Eddie Martin said they wanted to look anew at cameras that could be situated on public streets during events or for everyday monitoring.
Buie moved that council members consider adding as much as $24,000 to the budget to do that.
As of Tuesday, the city’s proposed budget totaled $8,235,325, a 1.7 percent decrease from the previous fiscal year’s budget. The city would have to take $573,525 from savings to make the proposed budget balance, something state law dictates it do.
The final public hearing on the budget will be June 12. Until that time, residents may peruse it online or at City Hall.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]