John Tharp knew the challenges he would face as Lucas County’s top law enforcement officer when he decided to run for sheriff last year.
He had been part of the administrative staff for 15 of the 28 years that James Telb was sheriff and a Toledo police officer for 25 years before that.
Sheriff Tharp, who took office two months ago after being elected without opposition in November, was no stranger to the county commissioners’ concerns for staying under budget and saving money.
Keeping the sheriff’s office operating on the budget approved by the commissioners is among his top priorities for the next four years.
He vows transparency to his staff and the community. Also important to the new sheriff is improving employee morale and increasing interaction between corrections officers and inmates to keep problems from happening in the jail.
To develop ideas and foster better relationships with his work force, Sheriff Tharp has begun showing up in the office and jail outside the normal business hours to talk to deputies and jail guards to get a feel for their jobs.
“We have been able to get so many great ideas from the officers by spending some time with them. I try to listen to their concerns and get their thoughts,” he said.
“I am a strong believer in being firm but fair, and treating everybody the same. There is no reason in having rules and regulations if we don’t deal with each person in the same way.”
As a Toledo police officer for nearly 25 years, he worked the streets, holding assignments on the foot patrol, vice narcotics, and homicide investigation squads, and the gang unit. He finished his city police career as a liaison officer with Toledo Public Schools.
At former Sheriff Telb’s request, he joined the sheriff's administrative staff in 1997, initially as the director of public affairs and later as major.
Sheriff Tharp, 64, is a Libbey High School graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Toledo.
As a newly elected sheriff, Sheriff Tharp was required under state law to attend classes in Columbus to be schooled in running the office.
Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn instructed Sheriff Tharp and the other sheriffs during the three-week program that was sponsored by the Buckeye State Sheriffs Association.
Sheriff Wasylyshyn praised Sheriff Tharp for his hands-on approach in handling operations, citing a recent standoff involving an armed gunman in western Lucas County in which the new sheriff stood nearby in the background during the eight-hour wait.
“I really like how he is taking a good look at his interaction with the deputies. He is very hands-on,” he said. “He is a very visible. He is very knowledgeable.”
Carol Contrada, president of the county commissioners, said: “I commend him. He has been very innovative and has shown an open approach to operational issues. He works very well with the commissioners and his door is always open. He is out in the community. He is accessible to citizens. I am impressed with his professionalism and dedication.”
Because of concerns about the cost of jail operations, Sheriff Tharp and the county commissioners are exploring the possibility of opening a jail to replace the downtown facility, a proposal being driven by a top-to-bottom analysis of the office last year.
Sheriff Tharp said the study by Community Resource Services examined all operations of the department and evaluated all positions, including assignments on all jail shifts, nurses and clerks, road patrols, and security in the courts.
The object of the seven-month study, he said, was to improve efficiency to get the most out of the resources.
“It was a huge undertaking. We looked at each and every job,” he said.
“After looking at all this, we came to the conclusion that we really need a new facility, because the goals and objectives we have we couldn’t even do in this facility because of the way the facility was built.”
Sheriff Tharp said the independent analysis, which cost $25,000, took into account the input of unions that represent 460 deputies, officers, and correction officers.
Recommendations in the report were immediately implemented, including adding sergeants, introducing a program to reward employees for outstanding work, and fostering interaction among inmates and guards to ease tensions.
“Much of the report focused on the ability of the sheriff’s department to deliver safety services as mandated under [state law]. They are doing a great job. The report was praiseworthy of the employees who work for the sheriff. We are very pleased to see that come out of the report,” Mrs. Contrada said.
Sheriff Tharp said much of his energy during the next several years will focus on the jail because it is the operation that must change to save money.
Built for $12.7 million, the Lucas County Corrections Center, at 1622 Spielbusch Ave., opened in 1977 as a pretrial facility.
The recommended capacity is 346 inmates, who are held on six levels in the building’s nine floors. The booking area has space for 51 more prisoners.
Sheriff Tharp and county officials say the building is obsolete, inefficient, and outdated, and its age and infrastructure, such as the elevators, make it costly and inefficient.
The building’s design creates blind spots on each floor and requires more guards to supervise prisoners.
“Most of us believe this building can’t be altered to be effective in terms of [reducing] the work force to the level that would be necessary,” said Peter Ujvagi, chief of public policy and legislative affairs for the board of commissioners.
After the report, the commissioners put together a 15-member executive committee to decide the feasibility of a new jail.
A working group is gathering data and information for the panel, which wants to have a recommendation before the end of the year.
Mr. Ujvagi said a possible location, cost figures, and financing options are among the recommendations expected from the committee’s research.
A review of the jail and the option of building a facility were undertaken in 2005 when the county shelled out $352,000 to outside consultants on jail construction options.
From that report emerged desires for a new jail instead of renovating the current facility. Such a project was estimated to cost up to $60 million and house up to 1,000 inmates.
Six months later, the consultants were paid nearly $44,000 to provide plans for renovation and expansion at the existing jail.
However, the estimated sticker price of a new jail caused county commissioners to forsake plans for a new jail and, instead, they elected to spend money on improvements, including a video visitation program and high-tech surveillance system.
All three county commissioners agree the current jail needs to be studied.
Commissioners Contrada and Pete Gerken praised Sheriff Tharp for taking a leadership role in the review of the jail operation.
“We need to take a look at the building because staffing is really difficult,” Mrs. Contrada said.
Added Mr. Gerken: “We are happy to have a sheriff to take such an active role in reviewing that facility and look at the changes that are needed.”
A commissioner since 2002, Tina Skeldon Wozniak worked in the jail in 1980 as a social worker.
“Back then, the jail was only three years old and it was like a new facility. Nobody would build a facility today like a hotel structure. But that is what they did,” she said.
“You can’t keep putting a Band-Aid on this facility. You have to deal with the reality that this is an old, decrepit building.”
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