Gwinnett to fund police body cameras, employee raises in new budget

Following a number of questionable shootings and other incidents involving police officers nationwide, Gwinnett County plans to buy body cameras for police and sheriff’s deputies.

“We definitely value having a record of the interactions between our officers and the public,” Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said. “I think this is the way policing is going.”

The move comes as the county plans to add a new police precinct location and expand its force by 55 officers, and is part of Gwinnett’s proposed $1.5 billion 2016 budget. In September, Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway set off a firestorm when he issued a statement decrying a growing “culture of police hatred.”

Nash said she would be surprised if every officer was equipped with a camera by the end of 2016, but that the county wanted to “stay in sync” with the trend. Still, she said, she has concerns about how long Gwinnett might be required to keep copies of the videos and what privacy issues might be broached by having victims on tape. When the laws and requirements are clearer, she said, “We want to be ready to make that purchase.”

The additional officers are needed, she said, because Gwinnett’s population continues to grow. A new precinct, in the Grayson area, was funded with money from the 2009 special purpose local option sales tax, but the county could not have afforded to staff it through the recession.

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Nash presented the budget to her fellow commissioners this week. The county will hold a public hearing in December, and commissioners will vote on the new budget in January.

As the recession and its effects ease, the county will spend more to retain employees, including giving workers a 4 percent performance-based raise. The raises would cost Gwinnett $8 million. The county also plans to re-institute longevity pay, in which workers who have been with the county for at least three years get a one-time lump-sum around the holidays. That will cost $3 million.

“It’s meaningful to people, ” Nash said. “It’s one more indication, a signal, that we value people who stay with us.”

County employees received a 3 percent cost of living increase in 2014 and a 4 percent raise last year, but no pay increases from 2010 to 2013. Employee retention has been a long-running concern, as talented workers have moved to better paying jobs in other governments or in business.

“We need to be able to retain our good employees,” Nash said. “It’s not a good business decision, to work so hard to train folks and watch them walk out the door.”

The spending plans also include the design of an expansion to the county courthouse, which will have about eight new courtrooms. If the budget is approved, Gwinnett will also build a new medical examiner building and a new Centerville senior center.

The proposed budget includes $400,000 in funding to nonprofits to help residents manage chronic conditions and use the county’s fire and emergency services less frequently, and an additional ambulance unit. It provides for more investigators and assistant district attorneys in that office, a new magistrate judge, more county employees focusing on economic development and an increase in park maintenance and animal control workers.

It would also add three express bus routes and restore library funding to 88 percent of its pre-recession levels.

Nash said there were more things she and others wanted to spend money on, but that employee retention and the judicial system were her priorities this year.

In some ways, Commissioner John Heard said, it is more difficult to decide what to fund when there is more money available than there had been during the recession.

“As you come back off hard times, you’re addressing all the pent-up needs,” he said. “That’s the situation we’re in right now.”

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