GASTON, SC (WIS) - If you called the Gaston Police Department Wednesday you heard a strange message. "Yeah, this is Chief Crider Gaston Police Department. Do not leave any messages. As of right now council has disbanded the police department. We are laid off until further notice. Do not leave a message. They won't be checked for the next couple of weeks. Thank you, it's been fun working here. Bye."
As Chief Woody Crider said in the message, Wednesday night at a council meeting, the town's police department was dissolved. But that is just the start of the Lexington County town's problems.
"Carry a gun. Protect your life," says a former Gaston police officer, who's warning residents they're going to have to fend for themselves. He is one of five officers without a job.
The entire force shut down because Gaston doesn't have the money to pay the officers.
The town is now under investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division, the IRS and the State Ethics Commission for its financial problems, including some big spending by employees. WIS News 10's Stewart Moore asked Chief Crider, "How does it make you feel to see that they're spending that type of money on personal endeavors and can't afford to pay the people protecting them?"
"I really rather not answer that," says Chief Crider. "I don't think it can be on TV."
Records from a private audit reveal what some are calling questionable spending, including $935 for one night of entertainment and travel by one of the financial administrators. And the mayor and some council members charged the city for a conference in Hilton Head, costing $4,200 just for the hotel, and thousands more for food and entertainment.
Mayor James Sharpe says, "I can't say for any reason that there's been anything done wrong."
Mayor Sharpe says the police department costs the most money, so it had to go. For the good of Gaston, the chief says he was willing to stay on. "I think all of us would have took pay cuts. I volunteered to go without a check, to keep these guys going. That don't matter to them."
Until the town's finances are straightened out, the department's doors will remain locked. It has residents concerned about their local businesses and well-being without having local police.
Michael Gantt says, "I own four businesses in this community. If something happens now we're going to have to rely on the Sheriff's Department. We do have a fantastic one in Lexington County; however, they're spread thin like anybody else."
Gaston residents who are seeking police assistance should call (803) 785-8230. In an emergency, call 911. If residents call 911, the Lexington County Sheriff's Department will respond.
Reported by Stewart Moore