Sheriffs going back to request radar use|[12/30/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sheriffs in Mississippi who support allowing county law enforcement to use radar devices to catch speeders will keep watchful eyes on the Legislature this year as local governments firm up this year’s legislative requests.

For more than two decades, bills to allow deputies outside of cities with populations more than 2,000 to use speed detection devices have stalled before coming to a vote.

This year, a political change to a key legislative committee may tip the balance in proponents’ favor.

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Rep. William Miles, D-Fulton, who chaired of the House Transportation Committee, retired after three terms. The looming change in who controls the gavel on road-related bills in Mississippi has area sheriffs brimming with hope.

“His departure from the legislature is good for public safety in the state of Mississippi,” Sheriff Martin Pace said.

Legislators’ committee assignments won’t be known until the session convenes Jan. 8. Miles’ seat in northeast Mississippi-based District 21 was won by Democrat Donnie Bell, a teacher at Itawamba Agricultural High School.

Pace cites E-911 records as evidence of speeding on county roads as a problem crying out for lawmakers’ attention.

In 2007 to date, 627 calls have come in from citizens who complained of fast and reckless driving. The number dwarfs the 374 complaints for burglary, larceny and domestic violence combined so far this year.

For Pace, the numbers speak volumes — especially from non-municipal residents he said have been treated “second-rate” by the Legislature in terms of public safety and protection.

“(The citizens) actually picked up the phone and called 911 about it,” Pace said.

Reasons for the longtime ban on non-municipal use of radar have been political and financial.

Pace has said the sheriff’s department has no financial stake in being able to run radar. Sheriffs, as with judges and court clerks, have base salaries set by the state.

Language in 12 bills killed in the Transportation Committee last year involving the extension of radar use was variable, with some tailored only to certain entities such as state transportation and water district officials.

Of the bills, the widest-ranging and most specific was one authored by Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, would have allowed county deputies to use speed detection equipment both inside and outside a municipality, including school zones.

Protecting buses in those school zones is what keeps Claiborne County Sheriff Frank Davis in support of the effort.

“It gives us another tool,” said Davis, Claiborne’s top cop since 1979.

If another reactor is built at Grand Gulf, Davis said, speeding will only worsen.

“If you can trust a deputy with a gun, why can’t you trust a deputy with radar?” Davis asked.

State Sen.-elect Briggs Hopson III and state Rep.-elect Alex Monsour favor the measure in principle but indicated they will consider the idea based on individual bills and how they’re written.

Among last year’s failed bills was a measure allowing radar only in Rankin County, with money from fines collected going to the state’s general fund.

Both said they have better plans for any money collected from local speeders.

“If it’s generated in Warren County, I’d like to see it stay here,” Monsour said.

Hopson said speeding was a top issue as he courted voters last year, adding speeding fines should be used to fund trauma centers and public safety education efforts.

“A lot of people get killed on these rural roads,” Hopson said.

Of the 15 fatal wrecks in the area this year, 10 have occurred outside Vicksburg’s city limits.

Other local requests this year likely will be considered as local and private legislation, with emergency dispatch funding again leading the pack.

Warren County supervisors still favor an increase in the surcharges collected on cell phones to better fund 911 dispatch services.

Though the effort faces opposition from anti-tax advocates in the legislature, it figures to come up when the board meets with the local legislative delegation after the board is sworn in Jan. 7.

The Legislature is scheduled to convene in Jackson the next day.

This time, supervisors plan to bring numbers to the table when it comes to measuring the impact of cell phone use on funding centralized dispatch.

Board President Richard George said legislators will have an “updated review” of costs and funding before deadlines for filing legislation hit in late February.

Last year, an effort to raise the $1 charge for cellular and residential lines by at least $1.50 failed. Business lines are currently charged $2.

Each fee hike has not come without a struggle. The last time any of the charges was increased was 2001, when residential rates were raised from 80 cents and business lines were raised from $1.66.

Most who have dialed 911 for help in those and other emergencies in recent years have done so using cell phones, with the volume of calls concerning speeding a key example. Through November, 64 percent of the E-911 center’s calls this year were placed from mobile devices, interim director Michael Gaul said.

The center will operate this year with a $1.3 million budget and is in the throes of a transition from the Warren County Courthouse basement to the former Southern Printing and city maintenance building at First North and Clay streets.

Vicksburg and Warren County voters agreed in 1989 to pay the surcharges on their phone bills to pay for the center’s call-identifying capability and dispatching, supplementing city and county funding which paid dispatcher salaries.

Subsidies from local government have increased since then, with this year’s budget allowing for merit-based raises and evaluations.

Also on supervisors’ legislative wish list will be another push to raise the status and salary of the county prosecuting attorney to full-time. If approved, the position would pay the county supervisors’ salary of $44,812 a year.

Also on supervisors’ list will be renewing contributions to charitable, nonprofit agencies — funding enabled only by the Legislature’s approval.

More than $615,000 was directed toward charitable giving in this year’s county budget, up about $20,000 over last year.

Of the $247,500 in additional donations enabled by the Legislature last year, $100,000 involved organizations the county had not previously funded.

A majority of this year’s donation budget is marked for renewing existing funding agreements for established charities such as the United Way of West Central Mississippi and the Vicksburg Area Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Most allocations are made quarterly during the fiscal year. Though local and private legislation itself does not mention each agency’s plans for the money, supervisors have tied the requests to groups using the money as originally intended.