Some Chattanooga police officers say they need more personnel now, never mind if the city's proposed annexation occurs.
"We're already short," said Lt. Corliss Cooper, who oversees the department's Charlie team covering Lookout Valley and parts of Highway 27 and Interstate 24. "Seriously, where are we going to get them from? Because we have issues over here already, especially with as large as the possible annexation area is going to be."
The mayor's office and police chief have assured residents that, if the annexation occurs, the police department temporarily will be able to handle an increased call load over a larger area by shifting personnel. Both the city police and fire departments would immediately assume jurisdiction over annexed areas.
While the city is prepared to staff new fire stations and install new fire hydrants in annexed areas, officials said they expect the police department to operate as it currently is, at least for a while.
Mayor Ron Littlefield said as soon as the budget or federal funding from the Community Oriented Policing Services grant allows, he'll put 10 new officers on the street each year until the staffing levels reach 500. The police department's staff currently sits at 432, which is 40 positions short of the authorized 472.
"We're not going to be stretched," he said. "But we are in a growth mode, both in fire and police. And the annexation plan is part of that overall plan."
Police Chief Freeman Cooper said city officers routinely back up county officers anyway.
"We feel like we can just absorb whatever calls for service they have in the first 10 areas without any additional staffing," he said.
The city's annexation plan allows for an assessment of the situation after 90 days, and some have inferred that means the city is ill-prepared to annex, the mayor said. But the city does not anticipate making significant changes to the plan, he said.
That doesn't stop some residents from worrying that police and fire response times will increase, in addition to officer workload.
"You're going to take a (police) department that's already thin and you're going to spread it even thinner," said Kenneth Carey, president of the Laurel Cove Neighborhood Association, which is in zone 4A of the annexation area. "What does that to do the perception as far as overall safety is concerned?"
Currently, Laurel Cove residents are satisfied with five- to 10-minute response times from Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies and responses of less than 12 minutes from the volunteer Dallas Bay Fire Department, located within three miles of the 105-house subdivision in Middle Valley, Mr. Carey said.
The city's annexation plan calls for three new fire stations to be built in the Hixson, Lookout Valley and East Brainerd areas, Mr. Littlefield said. The cost to build the stations would be about $1.5 million each with another $500,000 to $900,000 to equip them, he said.
Each fire hall typically is staffed with five firefighters for each of the three shifts, said Chattanooga Fire Department Chief Randy Parker.
The department has printed maps to familiarize firefighters with new areas, which will be the biggest challenge under annexation, he said. He does not expect to see an increase in overtime costs.
"I do see a fuel cost increase because we'll be running more calls," Chief Parker said. "It's hard to say how much until we start running it," though the increase could be between $30,000 and $50,000 annually.
A fire department analysis found that the annexed areas would require between 60 and 80 fire hydrants, the chief said. The city may not incur the $5,000 apiece cost for all of those because the Eastside Utility District and individual businesses could install hydrants at no charge to the city, though the exact number is unknown, Chief Parker said.
Chief says police are prepared
Chief Cooper said Alpha, Charlie and George teams represent the zones that could potentially cover the annexed areas.
Of the three, George team -- which currently covers Highway 58, East Brainerd and Ooltewah -- experiences the most calls for service, according to police department data. The zone is the largest of any in the city and had a daily average of 56 calls in May, June and July, according to data.
Alpha zone, which has boundaries of Chickamauga Dam, U.S. Highway 27 at Thrasher Pike, Moccasin Bend Road and Big Ridge, had a daily average of 54, according to data. Charlie zone had a daily average of about 30.
While an additional officer in Charlie zone would help now, it would be a necessity under annexation, Lt. Cooper said.
"We're already busy," she said. "We're just going to be busier. But we'll deal with it when it happens. That's all we can do."
This spring, Chief Cooper asked for 50 new officers if the city was awarded money through the COPS grant. While the city didn't receive any money to fund new positions for police officers, the grant application remains active, meaning the city could still receive money if federal funding for the grant is available.
"We're not looking at annexation being an issue for us," Chief Cooper said. "We realign our personnel over the course of the year based on calls for service anyway."
Chief Cooper also said he does not anticipate increased overtime or fuel costs for officers who would patrol the potential annexation areas.
District 5 Councilman Russell Gilbert said he first would like to see an adequate amount of police officers patrol within the current city limits.
"I just feel that if we try to annex, then it's going to thin out," Mr. Gilbert said. "I just think we need to look at it more closely and make sure we don't rush into something that we regret later on."