A request by Charles County Sheriff Frederick E. Davis to hire more deputies touched off a fervent debate this week among the county commissioners that highlighted the sensitive issue of crime in the fast-growing region.

"This is an issue we can't afford to delay," Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) said of the proposal, which would allow Davis (R) to begin recruiting 15 officers. "We need to stay ahead of the growth."

Smith, who represents the county's populous northern district, has been outspoken about the need to boost the police presence on the roads. He has warned that the crime in Charles could grow to rival that of neighboring Prince George's County, where the number of homicides this year has reached a record 155.

The sheriff's office has said that new businesses, more miles of road and a minor league baseball stadium in the development pipeline are creating new challenges in the once-rural county.

Leaders are wrestling with how to provide the higher level of service that residents demand without raising taxes, which many residents complain are too high.

"We need a plan, more than just saying let's do this," commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) said during the Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday. "I'm not against getting more deputies. What I'm saying is we have a financial responsibility."

Commissioner Robert J. Fuller (D-St. Charles) echoed that concern, asking, "How are we going to pay the bill?"

The sheriff's office's $47.9 million budget is second only to the public school system's in county spending. Even though the recruits Davis wants to hire would not join the payroll until April, the sheriff said he needs a commitment to start the process.

The total cost in the current budget would be roughly $216,000. If the commissioners agree to fund 15 officers, the total annual cost in the 2007 budget year, which begins in July, would be $1.5 million.

Budget writers presented the commissioners with statistics Tuesday showing that Charles's 228 deputies give the county the fourth-highest ratio in the state of officers to people, following Baltimore, Baltimore County and Prince George's.

The data -- culled from the 2004 Uniform Crime Report -- also showed that Charles spends more per officer than all Maryland counties except for Montgomery and Harford.

Absent from the discussion Tuesday afternoon was the sheriff, who took issue with the figures in an interview after the meeting. According to Davis's statistics, which came from the same report, Charles has 2 officers per 1,000 people, which is below the state average of 2.7 per 1,000. In Baltimore City, for instance, he said there are 5.7 officers per 1,000 residents.

As for the level of funding, Davis said the report does not take into account that counties such as Prince George's have police and sheriff's departments that split the crime investigations and traffic enforcement. Charles has no police forces.

Even though incidents of crime in Charles are down 6 percent, Davis said next year's numbers would be less encouraging.

"You can build all the roads and schools you want, but if you can't provide proper police protection or patrol the new roads, then what have you gained?" he asked.

He said the average time to dispatch calls for service in Prince George's is more than six or seven minutes. In Charles, he said, calls are dispatched in less than one minute.

"I do not want to see Charles County law enforcement get behind like Prince George's has, and we end up with [155] murders," Davis said. "And I don't think the commissioners do either."

Tuesday's debate concluded with the commissioners agreeing to put off any decision until Davis could join them.

"It's nice that they invited me after the fact," Davis said. "I thought if they were going to have a discussion, I would have been invited in the first place."