Beaufort County Sheriff vs. Town of Hilton Head Island: A fight we should not be having

Red flags about policing on Hilton Head Island are raised in a performance audit of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff P.J. Tanner has already dug in his heels and called it “useless.”

That’s not a good sign.

And if this is going to be a Tanner vs. the Town of Hilton Head Island fight, it needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. Tanner has had disagreements with other agencies he works with, most notably the solicitor’s office, and it does not have to be that way.

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The town contracts its police coverage from the sheriff’s office. It’s a financially-beneficial method that has worked well since the island’s incorporation in 1983.

Now the town has paid Public Safety Strategies Group of Massachusetts $25,700 to tell it if it’s getting what it is paying for. Some of the answers in a draft report of the audit are disturbing.

It says more could be done to prevent vehicle crashes, that deputies spend too much time responding to false alarms and mistaken 911 calls, that the Native Islander community says it does not get enough patrol and does not trust the sheriff’s office, and that the sheriff’s office is not using modern, data-driven decision-making on use of staff.

It also says Tanner did not fully cooperate with the study, and commandeered the only meeting with the department by talking too much about background that was not needed.

But how much of that is in the contract?

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Tanner says the new report is filled with bad numbers and other inaccuracies. He says the audit was sprung on him as payback for axing plans for a national Ironman competition that Hilton Head leaders wanted, even though it would have encumbered access to U.S. 278.

All this before the report goes to Town Council, which should happen at a committee meeting this week.

This is not a fight we need to be having.

Tanner’s too sensitive and overly protective of his turf.

And the town has been too passive in its oversight of a $3.6 million annual expenditure, the third-largest outlay in its general fund budget.

Regardless of what they decide is right or wrong in the performance audit, this much we know:

Neither the sheriff nor the town are going to take their marbles and go home. The town will not create its own police department, and the sheriff’s office is not leaving the county.

But something is not right in this relationship, and it needs to get fixed immediately.

The contract needs to be more specific, and it needs to include performance metrics so that no future Town Council has to ask a third party: Are we getting what we’re paying for? It’s been said that good fences make good neighbors, and that’s what good contracts do. They should sharply reduce the guessing and second-guessing.

A senior town administrator should be having weekly meetings with a senior sheriff’s office administrator to bring up things that are important to the community and see that the contract addresses those concerns.

No study of how public safety is being provided is useless, and plenty of long-term good can come of this one.