GEORGETOWN — After some debate, the majority ruled as the mayor and Town Council voted last month to remove GPS systems in town vehicles as a cost-saving measure.
The decision, made at an Aug. 25 meeting, will save Georgetown about $720 a month.
“We have to start saving money somewhere,” said Councilwoman Sue Barlow. “This seems like maybe a small amount of money, but over (time), it is quite a bit of money.”
The vote was 3-1-1. Penuel Barrett, Angie Townsend and Councilwoman Barlow supported removing the systems as soon possible, Mayor Bill West opposed the removal, and Christina Diaz-Malone did not vote.
Most of the discussion involved the Georgetown Police Department’s use of GPS.
Mayor West, who views GPS as an accountability tool, shared an incident from many years ago, during which a Georgetown officer drove his police vehicle to a party in Dewey Beach after work.
“That’s unacceptable. We can’t let things like that happen,” said Mayor West. “We need to hold our people accountable.”
In addition to police vehicles, other department heads and staff can utilize GPS in various town-owned cars, if requested. However, that appears not to be the case, according to Councilman Barrett.
“I contacted the department heads, and they couldn’t get on (GPS),” he said. “I just think we’re not to the point where we are utilizing the GPS system. We’re wasting our money. We know that, probably next year, we’re going to have to raise taxes. It’s time to save some money. Since we are not really utilizing this, I think it is time to get rid of it and move forward.”
Councilwoman Diaz-Malone explained her concern.
“I am caught between keeping our officers safe. I am caught between our citizens needing to know of potentially … responsibility. This is a complex issue,” she said. “I am a proponent of the GPS. And yes, I am (also) concerned about the budget.”
Councilwoman Townsend made note of town employees other than police officers.
“I’m talking about the GPS in the normal Public Works, Water and Sewer Department vehicles. I’m not talking about police because they are monitored by the 911 center,” she said. “I’m talking about everyday employees, (who) feel that they are being watched, and it works on the morale of the employees: ‘Why are they tracking us? What are we doing wrong?’”
Mayor West said GPS enables the town to monitor officer patrols to ensure adequate coverage. Several times during the discussion, Mayor West stated that police vehicles are often at the department for extended periods and not out on patrol.
“Just the idea that these guys know that there is GPS on the car and we’re monitoring their speed, or we could monitor. … We’ve got the resource there to use with controlling some of these issues,” he said. “I don’t want to have a situation where the person turns the radio off and the computer off. He is not controllable then. So (the 911 center) is not going to know where he is at. We, as the representatives of the people of Georgetown, need to be able to hold these people accountable to what they are doing and where they are at.”
Councilwoman Townsend responded, “To me, it falls back to the chief of police. If he knows his officers are sitting in the police department five and six hours a day and not out on the road, then he needs to do something.”
Councilman Barrett disagreed.
“I think our officers have done a great job,” he said. “I know, years ago, when I moved into town and you’d call for an officer, it might take a half-hour before you see the first officer. Well, I can guarantee you this: If you call now, they are there within minutes.”
That debate was continued this week, at Wednesday’s mayor/Town Council meeting, where Councilwoman Townsend asked Georgetown Police Chief R.L. Hughes about the department’s status.
“The last meeting we had, when the subject of GPS came up, there was discussions about officers that are at the station when they should be out patrolling the roads,” she said. “Can you explain? Are they doing that?”
Chief Hughes said he is confident in the agency’s coverage.
“I am not there 24/7. I rely on my supervisors ... to ensure that appropriate coverage is being done. I have faith in our supervisors.
“Now, are there times when folks are at the police department? Absolutely.”
He added that processing prisoners or dealing with a DUI arrest can lead to officers being at the facility for an extended time.
“The Georgetown Police Department is a quality, professional police services agency,” said Chief Hughes. “If it wasn’t, I would walk away today.”