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The Clarendon County Sheriff's Office could get a new traffic unit, according to county Grants Coordinator Vickie Williams.
She told Clarendon County Council members about a grant on Monday night that could provide the Sheriff's Office with up to four new deputies and four vehicles, all for traffic enforcement, through the Department of Public Safety's Target Zero Program.
However, Clarendon County Council tabled an acceptance of the grant until it actually comes through, with Clarendon County Administrator David Epperson noting that while the grant has no match requirement, it would only last a year, and isn't guaranteed beyond that.
"We could, of course, reapply for the grant each year, and we would continue to do that," he said. "But it's not guaranteed beyond the year."
Williams said the Department of Public Safety - which oversees the South Carolina Highway Patrol - reported 1,340 speeding citations in 2016, with 123 leading to DUI arrests.
"This was up from data collected in 2013, where there were 1,144 speeding citations and 119 DUI arrests," she said. "Most of these, of course, are on Interstate 95 and U.S. 521."
Clarendon suffered 19 traffic fatalities in 2016, and has already had three in 2017.
Williams said that normally her office would approach council for permission to pursue the grant.
"But Sheriff Tim Baxley had a very short notice of this grant opportunity, so it is already submitted," she said. "I had about five days to put it together and get the appropriate data. We submitted it Feb. 3."
Williams said Baxley and her office decided to submit the grant after looking at data for vehicle wrecks in the last four years.
"He felt like a traffic enforcement unit would be beneficial to the county," said Williams.
Williams said the total asked for is $487,483.
"That doesn't mean we will get all of that," she said. "We may get nothing. We could get two officers and two vehicles. It will depend on how they decide. My feeling is, based on history, that they will likely come back and say, 'We'll give you two officers and two vehicles.'"
Though it has 100-percent funding - meaning council won't have to put up any match money for the grant - council would have to decide, should the grant not be approved for another year, whether to continue the salaries for the new deputies.
"These positions would be totally dependent upon this grant," said Williams.
Councilman W.J. Frierson asked about the vehicles.
"Would we be able to keep the vehicles after a year?" he asked.
Williams answered affirmatively.
"Yes, but they can only be used for traffic enforcement," she said. "They can't be used for funerals. They can't be used for drug interdiction. They have to be used solely for traffic enforcement."
Benton Blakely liked the idea.
"It seems like if we get four vehicles, it seems like it's worth doing," he said.
Clarendon County Council Chairman Dwight Stewart said "the caveat for us, if the grant is terminated and when it terminates, we may not be able to come up at the county level with additional funds for these positions."
"I know that David has talked to the sheriff about that," he said of Epperson. "So, I think at this time, it would be wiser for us to delay accepting the grant until we know exactly what the grant will give us. As long as the vehicles aren't restricted after the grant. It would be terrible to have four vehicles to look through the fence at."
Stewart said the worst-case scenario in accepting the grant on its face would "be having to lay off four deputies a year from now."
"Unlike the task force, this isn't automatic," Stewart said, referencing the former Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force started between the Manning Police Department and the Sheriff's Office in 2009. In that arrangement, a state grant provided salaries, vehicles and equipment for several deputies, and was automatically renewed each year for four years.
"For this new grant, we have to reapply every year, and certainly we would do that, as David said," Stewart said. "We know how tight our budget is each year. That's why we're so hesitant to accept this right now. We want to make sure we can fund a position and that no one is put in a bad situation next year where they can't continue on."