LISBON - The race for county sheriff this fall is a rerun pitting Sheriff Ray Stone, this time with more than four years experience in this position under his belt, against Leetonia Police Chief John Soldano, who is running for the office for the fourth time.
During his time in office Stone said he has worked to keep the county and his officers as safe as possible on the limited amount of money he is provided in his budget each year. He has upgraded the patrol car tires to police-grade tires, which are rated for high speed and safer to drive on.
Stone said he also got the grant previously being used by the prosecutor's office for bullet proof vests to buy them for the deputies. He was able to get 21 vests through the program and can still purchase the two the prosecutor's investigators need.
"I bought better vests, and the government paid for half of them," Stone said. Additionally, Stone traded in the older handguns in the department for $299 each and bought new guns valued at $550. However, he was able to get them for free and replaced every handgun.
Stone said he was able to procure a COPS technology grant for $47,900 to use for new laptops and a service to run the driver's licenses which brings up the driver's photos and warrant information directly into the car. Deputies can even read license plates through a camera reader, checking vehicles for suspended licenses and stolen cars.
He was also able to get MARCS radio for the department in August 2008 and the packs for the trunks of the vehicles to help bounce the signals into some of the areas of the county without service.
Stone also made sure the sheriff's department got the new $7,000 computer every county in Ohio was promised through the attorney general's office, which allows live scanning of fingerprints. Prior to Columbiana County's computer arriving, the nearest was in Trumbull County.
Stone said he upgraded the appraisers, making sure certified appraisers go out with the uncertified appraisers. He also reorganized the civil division, with non-uniformed officers handling sheriff sales. He said he hired a person with banking experience to handle the sheriff sales, which has increased the efficiency of that operation and allowed him to place deputies who had previously been assigned to that division back onto the road to patrol and handle calls.
Additionally, Stone said he revamped video arraignments by having employees at the county jail monitoring the arraignments rather than having a deputy perform the job, which had been the case. He said the move puts those deputies back on road patrols for two and a half more hours per day.
Stone said he has also started charging $5 for transport fees when inmates do have to be taken to municipal court. The fee is paid by the defendant.
"I try to do whatever I can to try to expand my budget without asking the commissioners for the money," Stone said.
Stone has brought about $150,000 into the county in grants, and Soldano credits him for doing so. However, Soldano has plenty of criticism for the sheriff.
Soldano said he believes there is grant money available to put additional deputies on the road or in classrooms in schools like Southern Local, United Local and Beaver Local. However, Stone said those grants usually go to municipalities. Soldano said it still would not keep him from trying. He believes having a school resource officer in the Leetonia Schools was good for dealing with some of the issues at the school.
Soldano also criticizes Stone for retiring and "double dipping." Stone responds if he lost the election he would have been just four months short of receiving his retirement, under changes being made to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). The years are being increased from 30 to 32. He would have only 31. Stone notes he knows it is not popular, but lists several other county employees who also did a similar retire and rehire.
Stone also said the retirement costs the county nothing. Instead of paying 18.1 percent, the county now only pays 14 percent toward his retirement. However, Stone said he did not do it to save the county 4.1 percent, either.
"I did it to protect my financial future," Stone said.
Soldano also has other criticism of the sheriff, such as the way the department is being handled and the grievances being filed.
"I firmly believe our current sheriff is a good man," Soldano said. "He's a nice man. He's a good man. He's not a good sheriff."
He is quick to point out the morale problem at the sheriff's department, employees who are unhappy with the changes which have been made. Soldano said "it is time to rally the troops and get the men to enjoy their jobs again." He believes a happier department would be more productive.
He believes there is a priority issue with the sheriff's department. While Soldano said there are currently 30 unsolved murders and 100-plus unsolved sex crimes, he claims the sheriff is out running radar when he should be addressing the cases. Instead on a slow day, Soldano said he would be getting the detectives together to start looking back through those files, following up on new information or new leads.
Stone responds that he has a lead suspect on nearly all of the murders in the county. In one case, Stone said the suspect even admitted to it, but implied the case has never been prosecuted. He added a detective to the department during his time in office and said the detectives have been working hard on these cases. For some cases he gave examples of how things may have been mishandled, but those were before his time in the department.
Soldano criticizes the way the 911 center is being handled at the sheriff's department, which also dispatches for several local fire departments and some local police.
"I can't tell you one fire department happy with the way it is being handled," Soldano said.
Of the five 911 centers in the county, Soldano said East Palestine's is the best handled. However, he said there was a case with the county 911 where an outside ambulance company was called for a heart attack victim located right across from the local fire station. Soldano said he believes the complaints by the fire chiefs are legitimate, and the issues need addressed.
"I think it's the way they are being instructed to handle them," Soldano said of the problem, adding he heard the chief deputy said they would call who they want to call.
Additionally, Soldano believes calls from the public regarding burglaries and thefts need to be handled by a deputy who goes out to the location, not over the phone. He said there are cases going unsolved because no one investigates them. At the same time, Soldano said trustees in Knox Township tell him they never see a cruiser.
"We need to do a better job," Soldano said. "Make sure your deputies go out and put the effort forward and try. You're not going to solve them all."
He also points out the sheriff and his department have been running radar in the Salineville area, near the Southern Local Schools and on state Route 11. Soldano said the job could have been handled by the highway patrol. He had a highway patrol cruiser watching the school zone in Leetonia when the school cut busing for students in the village.
"Salineville knows the sheriff is busy," Soldano said. "It's political."
Stone said he was helping out in Salineville when the village's police department quit. There was no one to patrol the streets, and the village wanted a police presence until they could hire a new chief and department.
"I took an oath of office to uphold all the laws," Stone said, "From murder down to speeding tickets. If I see a violation, I'm not turning my head."