With Mazda-Toyota and support industries coming soon to Limestone County, so too will come the employees who work for them.Many will already live in Limestone County, but some will need housing, a safe route to work, grocery stores and entertainment. Some will have children who need schools, colleges or universities, trade schools or some other vocational training if we also want them to take root.
Growth from these businesses and others will also bring more calls to police and sheriff's personnel, more road traffic and more crime.
How equipped are Athens Police Department and the Limestone County Sheriff's Office to handle future growth?
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely is wholly optimistic.
"I think we're in great shape," he said.
Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson is expecting more of a test.
"I think we are going to be challenged with the potential growth that is coming in a way we have not been before," he said.
Athens Police Department
Despite staffing constraints, Johnson said APD is getting the job done right now.
"If you compare us in the United States, our people are doing a great job even though we are down from the level we need to be. We're able to take care of what we need to," the chief said.
But he sees pressure on the horizon.
"You see things coming through the (Athens) Planning Commission and (City) Council, so you get a head's up about the future," he said. "As we continue to grow in businesses, homes, apartments and townhouses, you can see where we will be going in six months and a year or two and you get an idea of what's coming. Like the school system is planning for more students, we're going to have to be prepared for that also."
He and Capt. Trevor Harris were recently surveying other departments and putting together figures. Through that work he learned that the national standard is one officer for every 1,000 residents.
"So, there's a lot coming in that is going to be a lot more demanding. We are going to have to start cutting some services or we're going to have to have more people.
Johnson said the study he and Harris are working on for presentation to the City Council will answer a lot of questions about what is needed. But he declined to release the results of that study until council members and the mayor have seen it. At the city's 2018 budget hearing, Johnson promised the council he would produce the figures.
More, denser housing ahead
What is certain about the future is the city is expecting more housing and higher density housing.
"When looking at the areas we are growing in, we still have a lot of resident off Line Road and Oakdale, there are a lot of houses left to be built. There are a lot of houses left to be built. In the area off Nick Davis Road will be mixed-type development.
"I've seen several plats for several houses off Cambridge Lane and some proposed annexation down in the southeast side, where a landowner wants to annex in from Limestone (County)," he said. "The apartments behind Cracker Barrel are starting with 500, and development off U.S. 72 in the Lucas Ferry area. You bring all these people in and the calls for service will increase. We will have to answer those calls, from barking dogs, to domestic violence to theft."
Johnson said the growth will come as residents begin moving into the new homes.
"We're kinda hanging on now, but we have to increase to keep safety of city in good shape."
If he can't get more officers, Johnson said one possible cut would be eliminating police response to private property vehicle accidents, at least ones without injuries. More residents without more officers might also mean cutting down on patrolling in neighborhoods.
"The more people you get the more calls you have to answer," he said. "That keeps them from patrolling."
Overall, he said, future growth is "something we need to plan and be readier for than we are today."
More officers or fewer services
Johnson finds the challenges at hand interesting, he said.
"It will be a slow influx, but a few homes at a time, but it will be maybe a 1,000 a year," Johnson said.
As a police chief, he has to prepare for some degree for what might occur.
"Even though we've been blessed in a lot of ways as we grow and people move in, there is no way of knowing we're getting the best or the worst of the people moving in. If a person moves in next-door, it may be a hard-working family or it may be someone who — skies the limit," he said. "It is going to demand more response from our department."
Currently, APD has 48 sworn officers and administrators, Johnson said. Among them are 36 patrol officers on the road, six investigators, two animal-control officers and two captains, he said.
He sees a possible need for more investigators.
"Because investigators have multiple cases at the same time, there are times I am looking at bringing more up," Johnson said. "The issue with that is I cannot short patrol. But as the community grows, I could see us doing like some other department and not investigate misdemeanor cases if there is no injury involved." That would presumably take some of the load off existing investigators and postpone promoting or hiring more.
"Hopefully, we will never get there, but those are areas you could look at," the chief said.
The cost of uniforms, body armor, weapons and communications and training is "huge" in any department, Johnson said. So, he cuts where he can. With equipment, Johnson said he tries to do with what he has when first hiring a new officer until money is there to buy the officer something better. That is not to suggest he gives officers second-hand vests or weapons.
"I try to hold onto older cars so if we get new staffing we can patch a few, keep 'um going and get back and forth with them as a temporary patch," he said. "That way we don't have personnel cost and equipment cost at the same time. I am trying to be mindful of the (taxpayer) dollar."
Harris, who fills in for the chief when he's out, is currently analyzing the cost of retaining versus replacing an officer. Such a study could inform City Council members whether to pay more to retain existing officers and how much more.
Value of experience
Some of the cost of an officer is intangible. A new officer doesn't have the experience of an experienced one, and training takes time. Like anyone else, officers learn by doing and through the proving ground of mistakes.
For example, a newspaper reporter at the scene of a Decatur convenience store robbery watched a seasoned investigator let a patrol officer leave the scene with his clipboard and paperwork on the roof of his cruiser. As the officer pulled onto Alabama 20, the investigator nudged the reporter and said, "this should be interesting."
Like a physics class experiment, the driver turned left, the clipboard slid right and crashed onto the highway. Paperwork fluttered in all directions. For the next 10 minutes, the officer ran like a headless chicken in traffic trying to recapture his documents.
When asked why he allowed it, the investigator said simply, "because he won't do it again."
Preparing officers takes time, Johnson said. So, losing them to better-paying departments is more than a financial loss.
"They have to learn to put what they learn in classes to work and the only way is to get out and do it and build that relationship. It takes time to build relationships and to handle things on the street and to build trust with a community. It's very important. We have good young guys, but it's not learned in a year and you can't read it in a book."
Limestone County Sheriff's Office
At the Sheriff's Office, Blakely knows the growth is coming based and the past has prepared him.
"No questions, we are in for a lot of growth over the next 10 to 20 years," he said. "Limestone County residents need to remember that over the last 30 years, we've been one of fastest-growing in the state."
The population has double during his term, which has been more than 30 years. That means more demand for service.
The county's population stood at 94,402 in 2017, the latest estimate. Today, the Sheriff's Office has 125 employees, including 24 deputies, 10 investigators and narcotics investigators, 13 school resource officers (retired officers and part-time officers stationed at each county school), 51 corrections officers for the jail, six courthouse security officers, (some part-time), nine administrators, three animal-control officers, eight communications officers and one work-release center officer.
"As Alabama grows, we stay very, very busy," Blakely said. "I wouldn't be surprised as the county continues to grow if we don't see requests for zoning."
Currently, county residents can do what they like as long as it isn't illegal. They can let their dogs bark or whatever.
Blakely expects to see County Commissioners and legislators looking at zoning and adding some animal-control law.
"That's something we really stay busy with," the sheriff said.
For many, zoning is a dirty word. They live in the county so they can do what they want.
Still many others like the freedom but want some safeguards.
"Some want it, some don't, but as we change and become more population-crowded, you're gonna see a demand for that (zoning). That's gonna be interesting."
Despite the pace, Blakely sees no need for a substation or second office.
"That might be suitable in some other county, but with Limestone County being the smallest county and Athens being the county seat, there is only a 15-minute drive to the Sheriff's Office to the most remote location. It is totally not needed and would mainly just be an increase in the cost of staffing, equipment and a building."
As for staffing and equipment, Blakely said his office is just a little behind on staffing but vehicle are a critical need.
"The County Commission has been good in trying to keep us in pretty good equipment but the demand and the amount of milage we put on vehicles answering calls, serving papers and patrolling the county it is a challenge to make sure we keep good vehicles and keep them in good shape. The more mileage you end up with, the more the maintenance cost.
More staff needed
As for staffing, Blakely said he needs more.
"Right now we're functioning, and I'm glad for the increases over the years, but we need more patrol deputies," he said. "Our department has quadrupled in staff since 1983, and the more population, the more service. We are not critically understaffed, but if he had more road deputies he could shorten response times."
Over the next serval years the goal will be getting more transportation officers, those who ferry prisoners from the Limestone County Jail to the Limestone County Courthouse, both in Athens.
On one recent day, officers transported 58 prisoners from the jail to the courthouse and back.
"We are constantly having more and more having to go," he said.
Sometimes, officer have to got to a state prison elsewhere in the state to pickup and deliver a prisoner for court.
Various cities, including Athens, Decatur, Madison and Huntsville, have annexed parts of Limestone County over the years, but that has not eliminated work for the Sheriff's Office.
"Because of annexation, anything in Limestone County that the Sheriff's Office served those cities handle most of the criminal aspects in those jurisdictions, but we still respond in those areas," the sheriff said.
Serving civil processes
Another growing burden are the increasing number of civil processes that must be served as a result of a growing population.
"It is amazing the number of evictions we do," Blakely said. "Fifty times more than 30 years ago. An officer (deputy) has to go to the home and be on standby when property is being restored to its owner. by law we have to be there."
The sheer number of civil processes, extraditions and court transports will make the Sheriff's Office have to increase personnel, he said.
Computer software is another cost that has increase over the years, one that was not needed 30 years ago. The software is needed for jail booking, records, media dispatches and every other paper process imaginable.
"It will be a constant to upgrade and to continue to make sure we stay abreast of new technology," he added.
Jail good for now
After expanding the county jail a few years ago, the county is in good shape as far as its ability to hold prisoners.
"I feel very positive about the jail and the edition completed a couple years ago," Blakely said. "I think the capacity and staff are good for several years to come. And, we've got room to expand."
Overall, the sheriff feels good about his office and its equipment and staff.
"We're in better shape than a lot of areas, but we can't sit on our laurels and think what we have now will take us into the next decade," he said. "We are a full-service Sheriff's Office. We do water rescue, water patrol, drones, our air assets include a helicopter that is used every month for search and rescue people we may be looking for. We have a fixed-wing plane to extradite people and save on manpower and costs."
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