Last updated 9/13/19 @ 9:45 a.m.
Bryan County, GA – Bryan County Commissioners voted Tuesday to send 85% of LVAP funds collected in their county over to organizations based in Liberty County. This vote accepted the recommendation made by the Local Victim Assistance Program (LVAP) Committee that they appointed earlier in the year.
The Bryan County LVAP committee primarily consists of government employees and includes one citizen. The board members who helped reach this decision are Richmond Hill Finance Director Bob Whitmarsh, Bryan County Family Connection Director Wendy Sims, Bryan County Sheriff Clyde Smith, County Finance Director John Rauback, Juvenile Court Judge Christi Balbo, Pembroke Police Chief Bill Collins, and Bryan County resident Tracy Walden-Stafford.
A little background on LVAP: State law that went into effect in 1995 which aimed to help increase access to services for crime victims, particularly victims of violent crimes. O.C.G.A. 15-21-131 mandates a 5% add-on to any total fine amount charged in any court in the state of Georgia. These “5% funds” should be collected by each county individually and paid monthly to victim assistant programs in the county for which the fine was imposed (O.C.G.A. 15-21-132). Should the respective county not have such a program, these funds shall be directed to the district attorney of the judicial circuit in which the county is located for the purpose of defraying the costs of victim assistance activities carried out by the district attorney’s office.
Prior to Tuesday’s decision, 100% of the LVAP funding collected by Bryan County has been remitted to the Atlantic Judicial Circuit’s Office of the District Attorney, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, with an additional almost $385,000 being totally unaccounted for, as exposed by AllonGeorgia. The only victims assistance provider physically located within Bryan County is The Cottage (Serenity Hill), which opened in Richmond Hill during the summer of 2018. The facility provides victim support in the form of forensic medical examinations and crisis intervention, among other services.
When the LVAP committee met on August 27th, it decided to cut the funding sent to the District Attorney from 100% to 55%. The vote, which passed 5-2, sends the rest of the funds equally to The Cottage and two other organizations: a domestic violence shelter and another that provides forensic interviews, both based in Liberty County. One of the dissenting votes came from resident Tracy Walden-Stafford who wanted more funding to be sent to the local non-profit agencies and less to the District Attorney. Walden-Stafford told us, “Not only is the DA’s office serving the least amount of victims, they are using the Victims Assistant staff for investigatory and secretarial purposes, according to the list of duties provided to the committee.”
The Cottage is the only organization that is physically located inside of Bryan County. Helen’s Haven, which was awarded 15% of these LVAP funds, ended the last financial year with over $1 million in total assets. However, the Cottage served many more victims, despite having a negative balance of 4,682.20 at the end of the same period. Dr. Trinity Ingram-Jones says she has personally funded The Cottage to make up this difference. The Tri County Protective Agency, which also serves less victims, has received extensive funding from the LVAP of other counties. Also, according to 2017 IRS records, Tri County Protective Agency uses almost 70% of their contributions and grants towards salaries and other employee benefits.
Helen’s Haven, located in Liberty County, also receives additional income from the Bryan County Commissioners, paid out annually using tax dollars, which is not tied to any LVAP funding or other law. This funding is remitted from Bryan County to the organization in Liberty County voluntarily, despise having an organization domiciled in Bryan County, who serves more victims, while operating with a negative cash balance. LVAP committee member Wendy Sims signed off on the invoices for this funding. Sims is the director of Bryan County Family Connection, in which Helen’s Haven is listed as a ‘partner’ on their website, along with Bryan County News and several other local organizations.
At the meeting, the Commissioners accepted the recommendation of the LVAP committee unanimously, with the motion made by District 4 commissioner Brad Brookshire. There was no discussion on the matter and no comments from the public were received until after the vote had taken place. Despite this, many members of the public did speak during public comments to ask that more funding be sent to victim service organizations, as opposed to funding the District Attorney’s department because of several reasons, one being that the great majority of victim cases never make it to the DA’s office to begin with.
When adding her own support for keeping the funds within the county and asking that the decision be reconsidered, Julie Sehl expressed some confusion as to why the money was being sent outside by the Commissioners, when legally the money must be given to providers that were located within Bryan County itself to help local victims.
Her view was not shared by the County Attorney Leamon Holliday, who asserted that it was how people interpreted the law that was confusing and that the law itself made no specification about allocation of funds to providers within the county.
Despite a commissioner questioning the rules allowing her to do so, Karen Long, a Richmond Hill resident, yielded her time to Jackie Arbogast, who told the commissioners that the DA’s office was not able to provide the kind of services the county needed. Things like victim advocacy, trauma care, therapy, shelter, food, relocation services, and more – all of which are life-saving interventions for victims, were all things that the DA’s office is not able to provide. She stressed that the services need the money much more and that while the District Attorney’s Office will continue to function without it, the non-profit, victim-centered services would not. She stressed how important these services are to people like herself who need them to recover and rebuild their lives.
Other speakers included mental health nurse Amy Gamblin, who spoke on behalf of a victim, and Trinity Ingram-Jones representing The Cottage. Dr. Jones urged the commissioners to support the organization that is best equipped to serve the local community, also expressing her disappointment that they were seemingly making a choice not to do so by sending the money out of area.
As the victims and their representatives made their case, none of the Commissioners engaged with the speakers, crossing to simply thank them for speaking and voted to adjourn the meeting.
This newly approved funding arrangement will be put in force at the beginning of 2020.