The recent donation of four horses from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office to a police department in coastal Georgia has drawn scrutiny from another elected official.
The mounted patrol unit was eliminated as part of the agency restructuring last month under new Sheriff Duane Piper. But Commissioner Todd Levent has questioned the sheriff’s ability to give away county assets and said legal counsel is reviewing the issue.
The commission could discuss the matter at a future session, or even its called meeting today, depending on the findings of the county attorney, he said.
“Everything that the sheriff drives and operates belongs to the county and goes to the county [commission],” Levent said. “The question is, if it’s bought with drug seizure money, does it then have to go back to the BOC or not?”
Created in 2001 as part of the sheriff’s special operations division, the mounted patrol used specially trained horses at Lake Lanier parks and local shopping centers. The animals also took part in search-and-rescue efforts, among other duties.
Piper stated several times during his 2012 campaign for sheriff that he planned to eliminate the mounted patrol unit because he deemed it an unnecessary expense.
According to Sheriff’s Maj. Rick Doyle, the unit’s operating costs totaled about $20,000 annually, and the two full-time employees accounted for about $70,000 in salary and benefits. The employees have been reassigned to the school resource officer unit, for which they were certified.
The four horses, all named after Civil War generals, were taken to their new jobs with the Savannah-Chatham County Metro Police Department on Feb. 5, Doyle said.
Three of the horses had initially been purchased with money from the drug seizure fund, but the fourth was donated.
“The drug seizure horses, we can do what we want with them as long as if we get any money for them it goes back into the drug seizure fund,” said Doyle, director of operations for the sheriff’s office.
“The way the drug seizure money works is we get a portion of that money, but it’s collected throughout the state of Georgia. It’s not drug money that we get just in Forsyth County because we’re part of a task force.”
Still, Levent wondered how residents would feel if the sheriff gave another county the costly armored vehicles or other equipment that has been purchased with drug seizure funds instead of keeping it here or selling it to support other needs.
He added that a nonprofit within the county had asked to receive the horses if they were no longer needed by the office.
According to Doyle, the horses’ new location came at the suggestion of a prior owner who had donated one of the animals.
“We didn’t want to offend the man who donated the horse, so Piper called him and said, ‘I’m going to do away with the horses. Do you want your horse back or do you have any special requests?’” Doyle said.
The man suggested the donation to the Savannah area, where he has a second home and has seen the use of mounted patrol in the historic area, Doyle said.
The department came to Forsyth County to look at the one horse and then said they could house all four, he said.
The two agencies set up an agreement to sell them for $1, since some transfer of funds in required in such a deal, and also that Forsyth could use the horses if needed, Doyle said.