COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. (WJBF) — As Columbia County waits to learn if it’s qualified to stand as its own judicial circuit, its leaders are combating speculation about its intentions.
After the county sent the state its proposal, some state and county lawmakers as well as District Attorney-Elect Jared Williams suggested the county’s timing is suspicious. If the county’s resolution is approved, Columbia County would have its own Superior Court judges, public defenders and district attorney. Williams provided this statement to NewsChannel 6:
“I am singularly focused on doing my job well, and my job is to protect the people of the Augusta Judicial Circuit. I trust the state legislature to make the right decision as to whether our circuit should be split. I do, however, believe it is important for the voters to understand the history. We have been a circuit since 1870. Fast forward 150 years, and less than a month after voters elected the first African American District Attorney, Columbia County leadership is now asking to leave. I will not allow divisive politics or attempts to tear at the unifying fabric of our community deter me from executing my duties faithfully. On January 1, I will be the District Attorney for all 3 counties in our unified circuit, and dedicate my efforts to keeping its citizens safe.”District Attorney-elect Jared T. Williams
Several Columbia County officials tell NewsChannel 6 the proposal has nothing to do with Williams or the District Attorney election.
“I can tell you there is no ill intent,” Scott Johnson, the Columbia County administrator, said.
County Administrator Scott Johnson says it simply comes down to saving taxpayer money. A financial analysis conducted earlier this year found Columbia County could save taxpayers between $500,000 and $1 million if it stood as a single-county circuit with its own district attorney. Johnson says that money could be used to hire additional sheriff’s deputies, build new roads and bridges or improve the community, which continues to grow each year.
Columbia County is responsible for paying for 37 to 40 percent of the Augusta Judicial Circuit’s expenses. That share is determined based on the county’s population and caseload. Though Columbia County may account for about 40 percent of the circuit’s court cases, Johnson explains those cases may not be as expensive or require as many resources as other counties.
“While our cases may be going up in the circuit, and we may account for 40 percent of the total number of cases, a large number of those cases will be misdemeanor cases, which are going to be plead out way before the trial starts. They may be negotiated or quick cases, bench trials not jury trials, so they’re not going to be expensive cases. If you contrast that with some capital cases, maybe a death penalty or violent crime case, and those take a lot of time. In Columbia county, we don’t have a tremendous amount of those.”
Each year, Richmond County sets the Augusta Judicial Circuit’s budget and sends a bill to Columbia and Burke counties for their shares of the cost.
“We simply get a bill for our 40 percent. They may need four additional investigators for one particular area. That area may or may not apply to Columbia County, but we’re still going to get a bill for 40 percent.”
Johnson says creating a single-county circuit would allow Columbia County to set its own budget and plan for the future. However, the move is opposed by Chief Superior Court Judge Carl Brown, who oversees the Augusta Judicial Circuit and is now forming a committee to preserve it.
“We know there’s strength in unity and numbers,” Brown said.
The state will now study if Columbia County qualifes to form its own circuit. If it meets certain criteria, the study’s findings will be passed to the Judicial Workload Assessment Committee. The findings could also bypass the committee and be sent straight to the General Assembly. If approved, the resolution would be given to Gobernor Brian Kemp for final approval.
If the state determines Columbia County needs to stay part of the Augusta Judicial Circuit, Johnson says the county will continue to work alongside Richmond and Burke counties. In that case, he admits county leaders will “question is Columbia county getting the best value for our taxpayers.”
“This is not a fight between Columbia County and Augusta,” Johnson explained. “It’s not a fight between Columbia County and the circuit. It’s simply a matter of what’s in the best interest for the people of Columbia County.”