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Staff file photo by Tim Barber / Varnell Chief of Police Lyle Grant stands outside his temporary police headquarters in 2013.
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Varnell, Ga., residents will vote this fall whether to eliminate the city's police department.

City Councilman David Owens said during a special called meeting Thursday night he will move next week to create a nonbinding resolution on the November ballot. Voters will decide if they want to disband the city's police department and enter an agreement with the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office. At the same time, they will be able to vote on eliminating property taxes in the city.

However the majority of the city of 1,800 people votes, the council said it would abide.

Owens' announcement came after 10 days of controversy. First, on July 11, the council voted 3-1 to immediately disband the department. The move shocked residents and other city officials, because the meeting was advertised as a special called session to discuss personnel. The next day, Mayor Anthony Hulsey held a public meeting, telling residents he would veto the council's move.

On Thursday, the three council members who voted to eliminate the department — Andrea Gordy, David Owens and Jan Pourquoi — held a meeting to explain their thinking. Councilwoman Ashlee Godfrey, the lone vote against the measure, was not in attendance.

Each resident who spoke at the meeting criticized Gordy, Owens and Pourquoi.

"How dare you sacrifice our safety," Sandy Pangle said.

"It seems incredibly irresponsible," Mary Ellen Hankins added.

"The way it was handled violated the intent of the open meeting act," said state Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta.

Before the public could comment, the council members gave public statements for 30 minutes. Owens gave a list of mistakes and inappropriate behavior by the department over the years, beginning with the 2008 arrest of then-Chief Tim Henderson. He also referenced two crashes by officers.

In 2012, an off-duty officer hit a newspaper deliveryman's car, killing the man. Two years later, another officer crashed his car doing a U-turn, injuring someone in the other car. The city paid a combined $920,000 in settlements in those cases.

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Owens said the city's liability insurance premium increased 62 percent, from $35,000 in 2015 to $57,000 this year.

"We're walking on thin ice with our position on liability coverage," he said. "We have another accident, our insurance is not renewed. The police department is its own worst enemy. We can't operate a police department without insurance."

Gordy, meanwhile, said the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office could do well covering the city. She said she spoke with Sheriff Scott Chitwood, who said only about two 911 calls are dispatched to the Varnell Police Department every day. (Chief Lyle Grant has said a patrol officer keeps a phone in the car, and people call the city's department directly sometimes.)

Pourquoi said cutting the department would save the local government significant money. The council budgets about $300,000 a year for public safety, about one-third of all expenses. He said the city could reach an intergovernmental agreement with the county, receiving a full-time sheriff's deputy patrolling the city for $50,000 a year.

He also projected the city's revenue from fines generated by the police department would drop. Those fines now produce about $200,000 in annual revenue. Pourquoi said the city is a speed trap.

"Small towns use tickets to fill their coffers," he said.

Pourquoi said property taxes generate about $100,000 per year, which the city would cut along with the police department. Some people in attendance did not think taxes and the department should be linked on the November ballot.

"All this hoo-ha didn't happen because of taxes," Ramona Pangle said. "This hoo-ha happened because you tried to take our police department away."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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