(Posted Feb. 5, 2020)
By Andrew Garrett, Staff Writer
What is the price of protection and what can you expect for that price? That was the question Mount Sterling village council tried to work out during a special meeting on Jan. 29 where they discussed entering into a new contract with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.
In 2012, Mount Sterling closed the doors on its police department. Since then, the Sheriff’s Office has provided the village with protective services. The current contract is set to expire at the end of February.
Sheriff John Swaney attended the special meeting to answer questions from council members and the public about the services his department offers the village and to defend the quality of those services to some of those present who questioned it.
Swaney’s initial proposal for the contract renewal set a cost of $265,741 per year for the next three years. That figure represented a 5 percent increase over the previous contract. Council member Becky Martin said she thought the proposed increase was going to be 3 percent. Swaney said he was amenable to changing the contract to reflect a 3 percent increase.
Martin said council was not in the habit of spending more money than necessary, especially for what some of the meeting audience members perceive to be limited law enforcement presence in the village.
Lack of visible presence was one of the major observations expressed at the meeting. Resident Mike Stage, a member of the village block watch, said he had driven through town more than once and found no sheriff deputy in sight. He also complained that he couldn’t get an escort for the processional for his mother’s funeral.
Martin’s questions mostly focused on monetary concerns. She wanted to know if deputies hired specifically for the village were also obligated to serve neighboring areas, such as the Burr Oaks subdivision. She also asked where the money from traffic tickets is going.
Swaney said that, for the most part, his deputies write tickets under the Ohio Revised Code. Tickets also could be written under the village’s uniform traffic code (if deputies are instructed to do so) for such things as not obeying stop signs, but Swaney said his deputies are not there to generate income for the village. He also said he is not in control of where the money goes and told Martin she was more likely to find the answer to that question by calling the county courts or the county commissioners.
“We never hear about the good, we only hear about the concerns,“ Swaney said.
Speaking to those concerns, he continued, “I will do my best to address them. I’m your sheriff.”
He also made it clear that his deputies have a duty to protect anyone in the area as needed, within in the village limits or not. Denying service to someone minutes away just because he or she is outside the village limits would be unneighborly and unethical, he said.
The reality of the situation is that the village cannot afford more of a presence than is already being provided.
“We’re not that fortunate down here. Me and the commissioners have supported to make sure that we have somebody responsible for this village 24 hours, seven days a week,” Swaney said.
He explained that the village is paying for 16 hours of coverage per day under the current contract. The Sheriff’s Office is picking up the tab for the other eight hours per day.
Swaney also noted that the contract states that the village is entitled to only the standard coverage afforded the general area when an assigned deputy is on leave, on vacation, or sick. However, Swaney said, like former Madison County Sheriff Jim Sabin, he is not of the mind to let the village go uncovered in those instances, so the Sheriff’s Office has traditionally absorbed those costs.
It takes approximately $347,000 per year just to pay the salaries of the three deputies assigned to the village, Swaney said. That figure does not include the cost of cruisers, the gas to fuel them, fire arms and ammunition, uniforms, or training.
Village council member Andrew Drake asked if it was possible to continue the current contract on a month-to-month basis until the village has a chance to consult legal counsel. The village does not currently have access to quick counsel due to the recent resignation of village solicitor Mark Pitstick.
Swaney said the contract could continue until April.
The contract proposal will be on the agenda at the next village finance committee work session set for 3:30 p.m. Feb. 12. Residents are encouraged to attend and ask questions or give comments.