LISBON - Things are looking up for the embattled Columbiana County Drug Task Force, currently under investigation by the state for possible financial irregularities that resulted in the ouster of its director.
First, new DTF Director Brian McLaughlin reported two police departments - East Palestine and Wellsville - are expected to soon assign officers to the DTF. Second, the DTF will have a record budget of $126,834 to work with this year.
Participation in the DTF dropped to only the county sheriff's office and the Salem, Lisbon and Leetonia police departments, with each assuming all of the costs for the officers assigned to the DTF.
County commissioners announced two weeks ago they would begin using casino tax revenue received by the county to help police departments who assign an officer to the DTF. Commissioners will provide $10,000 a year to those departments that assign an officer to the DTF at least 20 hours per week, while those committing to a full-time officer would receive $20,000.
County Sheriff Ray Stone said those departments and others want to participate but are having financial problems of their own, and making this money available should help make it easier on them if they choose to do so.
"I'm hoping for a better year. It's progressing well," he said of efforts to increase DTF membership, "and I'm getting a lot of positive response."
Stone said police departments are still interested in joining despite the bad publicity from the state probe into the DTF, perhaps because most law enforcement agencies have experienced officer problems at one time or another.
"It can happen anywhere," he said.
The sheriff was asked what he thought of comments attributed to Columbiana Police Chief Tim Gladis, who this week expressed his reservations about rejoining the DTF, describing the agency as being "a little bit loosely run."
"I don't know what he was talking about," Stone said.
Gladis was quoted as saying that when he became chief in 2009 he pulled Columbiana's DTF officer for financial reasons but had been told the city received little in return during its 17 years of participation.
"They had one of the best agents around on the DTF," Stone said of the Columbiana officer who served many years on the DTF. "He was the most knowledgeable agent at the time and helped Columbiana County as well as Columbiana."
Gladis also pointed to the financial benefit communities were receiving that partner with the local office of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, most noticeably being Salem, which has purchased vehicles with forfeited drug assets resulting from DEA investigations.
Stone said that is because the DEA focuses on high-profile cases involving major dealers moving drugs into northeastern Ohio, and rightfully so. As a result, the amount of seized assets can be substantial.
He said the DTF deals with the smaller dealers operating daily in every community in the county. "They don't do street dealers like we do ... It's like comparing apples to oranges" in regard to the caliber of investigations the DEA and DTF pursue, Stone said.
The DTF shares forfeited drug assets among participating law enforcement agencies, when financially possible. The DTF distributed more than $7,000 in forfeited assets from 2011 cases, while the amount forfeited last year totaled just $2,500.
As for the DTF budget, McKenzie said the $126,834 being received this year from the Governor's Office of Criminal Justice Services is matched with $43,000 in the form of local in-kind services, such as the cost of free office space provided for the DTF by the sheriff's office and a portion of the wages of officers assigned to the DTF. The money is used to pay for vehicle maintenance, equipment purchases and upkeep, and for buy money.
While the state money cannot be spent on officer wages, it can and is spent to help pay the director's salary and that of the part-time DTF office secretary. McKenzie said 40 percent of salary is being paid with grant money.