LISBON - To boost participation in the Columbiana County Drug Task Force and help existing members, county commissioners are offering to pay a portion of the salaries of police officers assigned to the DTF.
"We felt, in the spirit of fairness, to help those who are currently members and others who have expressed an interest in joining," said county Commissioner Mike Halleck.
In exchange for $10,000 from commissioners, the city and village councils of participating police departments would be asked to pass a resolution requiring the assigned officer commit to working at least 20 hours per week at the DTF.
Commissioner Tim Weigle said they have also offered to provide $20,000 annually to any police department that currently has an officer assigned to the DTF on a full-time basis and may extend the offer to others which put an officer on full-time.
"We'll have to look at it and evaluate if we can afford it financially," he said.
In the 21 years since the DTF has been formed, it has been staffed with full- and part-time police officers from local police departments, who continue to pay their salaries and benefits. The DTF had as many as eight agents at one time but is currently staffed by police officers from Salem, Leetonia and the county sheriff's office, although the sheriff's office would not receive $10,000.
Lisbon is also a current member but its officer assigned to the DTF is currently on paid leave while the DTF is investigated for possible financial irregularities.
Halleck said because of additional revenue resulting from the state casino tax, commissioners are in a financial position to finally help participating departments and provide an incentive for others to join.
"We feel this a prudent way to share the money we are getting with other communities," he said.
Since Ohio's first casinos opened last summer, commissioners have received three tax payments totaling $530,396. Commissioners were criticized by some during last year's election season for refusing to share the money among cities, villages and townships.
Sheriff Ray Stone said at least four other police departments have expressed an interest in assigning an officer to the DTF - East Palestine, Wellsville, Salineville and Perry Township - and others may want to, once the word gets out about the financial assistance.
"I have high hopes for the task force. We want to redouble our efforts to get drugs off the streets of Columbiana County," the sheriff said.
Halleck was asked if the move was in keeping with his 2010 campaign pledge to pump $100,000 into the DTF to help defray the cost for participating police departments.
"This would fulfill that campaign promise, but that's not what this is about. The reason we're doing this is because it's the right thing to do ... It's no secret we have a drug problem in the county," he said.
Absent from the list of communities interested in joining the DTF is East Liverpool, the second largest city the county and has arguably the most significant drug problem. Halleck said it is his understanding East Liverpool is not interested in rejoining the DTF and will instead continue to assign an officer to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency office in Mahoning County.
"That's their choice, but the DEA has limited resources as well, and it's not just Columbiana County they focus on," he said.
Stone said he would be happy with whatever extra help they can get, adding his office is seeking a $20,000 state grant to assist in hiring an additional deputy for assignment to the DTF.