Politics & Government

Free rent? Hilton Head offers $0 lease to Beaufort Co. Sheriff for island office

Should Beaufort sheriff charge for 911 hangups, false alarms? Report raises the idea

A consulting firm's report suggests ways to improve service by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office on Hilton Head Island.
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A consulting firm's report suggests ways to improve service by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office on Hilton Head Island.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is set to get a big discount on yearly rent for its Hilton Head Island office.

If approved next month, the sheriff’s office will pay no rent instead of the $65,000 the town has charged each year since the department moved into the building in 2012.

The town hasn’t said why it is essentially giving away income. Officials say only that not charging rent will simplify the relationship between the department and the town.

At least one council member was incredulous.

“Let me get this right,” Ward 6 representative Glenn Stanford said July 16 during a finance committee meeting. “We’re forgiving ($65,000) in rent and not getting anything in exchange?”

Mayor John McCann responded: “We will talk to the sheriff about services, and we will talk to the county about money. We will not talk to the sheriff about money.”

On Tuesday, the full town council unanimously passed the first reading of the agreement. The council will vote on it for a final time Sept. 17.

An extra $65K?

The change comes as Beaufort County has asked the town to pay more for law enforcement services on the island. The proposed lease is $0 as long as the sheriff’s office “provide(s) the primary law enforcement services for the Town.”

Hilton Head Island, unlike Bluffton, doesn’t have its own police force. The town pays $3.6 million each year to Beaufort County for the sheriff’s office to provide the island’s law enforcement services, according to town finance director John Troyer.

Earlier this summer, county officials suggested that the town pay around $1 million more. Assistant Town Manager Josh Gruber said those discussions are ongoing.

For the past seven years, the sheriff’s office’s command center for the southern half of the county has been on Shelter Cove Lane. It is more visible to the community and allows deputies to have faster response time because they don’t have to drive over the Hilton Head bridges, according to Gruber.

The formal lease between the sheriff’s office and the town expired in November 2017, Gruber said. While it’s been extended on a month-to-month basis, the new lease is indefinite. It can be terminated with 90 days’ notice but otherwise ends only if the department ceases to serve Hilton Head Island.

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Under the new agreement, Gruber said money is removed from the equation. The free rent will leave $65,000 extra in the sheriff’s budget, although the department will still be responsible for utilities, maintenance and overhead costs associated with the office.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the extra funds in his budget would likely be redirected to overtime pay for deputies or, if unused, returned to the county.

Some residents may rather see those funds go to more law enforcement on Hilton Head Island.

In March, a traffic consultant released a report that 84 percent of drivers speed on Hilton Head’s U.S. 278. He said “a lot (has) to do with the limited resources of law enforcement.”

But Tanner said writing speeding tickets won’t necessarily solve the problems Hilton Head sees on its main arterial.

As the town explores more laws banning trash and big holes in the sand, many residents have called for more enforcement from the sheriff’s office.

At a Thursday public planning committee meeting about a potential large shovel ban, committee chairperson David Ames said “without enforcement and without communication, I think we’re spinning our wheels.”

Duplicated documents were on display on Thursday morning to illustrate the years of data that was given to a Massachusetts-based consulting firm hired by the Town of Hilton Head Island to determine if the town was receiving the proper amount of services for what it was spending on the law enforcement agency. Sheriff P.J. Tanner, center, and Col. Allen Horton, left, took issue with the group’s notation that the office was uncooperative in sharing data with the group as noted in the report. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Town senior planner Anne Cyran said enforcement of the ban would need to come from the sheriff’s office and property owners’ associations on the island.

But Tanner said money saved from rent wouldn’t be spent on additional deputies on Hilton Head.

“Sixty-five thousand dollars is about half of a deputy,” he said, adding that a full-time uniformed officer with a marked vehicle costs about $140,000.

Mayor John McCann has tried to smooth relations with Sheriff Tanner after a tumultuous relationship between Tanner and former Mayro David Bennett.

Some council members and Tanner disagreed on hosting an Ironman competition that would have shut down parts of U.S. 278 in 2016. Tanner again squared off with a town consultant when the firm released a 2018 report that criticized the sheriff’s office’s coverage on Hilton Head.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.