Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Penalties sustain police forces of small towns

PROCTORVILLE, Ohio - Sgt. Jeff Rood rests his cigarette on his desk in the one-room police department and opens a drawer crammed with carefully labeled files. Each manila folder holds a warrant waiting to be addressed in the village mayor's court.

“And that's nothing,” he says, pulling open another drawer, then a third. “These are just the ones we haven't gotten to yet.”

Proctorville, population 699, is smack dab in the middle of busy State Rt. 7 along the Ohio River where the Buckeye state meets Kentucky and West Virginia. Like several other towns along the 30-mile route at Ohio's southernmost point, its six-member police force has been criticized as being too hard on drivers and are featured on a Web site dedicated to exposing speed traps.

“We do have quite a reputation. Nobody wants to drive through Proctorville,” Sergeant Rood says. “To me, that means we're doing our jobs.”

Those jobs depend on mayor's court revenue. In Proctorville and some other small towns, police departments are funded almost entirely by fines and court costs. Proctorville had $106,000 in mayor's court receipts in 2000, according to state audit reports. The cost of running the fire and police departments that year was $136,000.

Nearby Hanging Rock, a town of 327, had $109,000 in mayor's court receipts last year. The cost of police protection was $81,000.

Get rid of the mayor's court in those communities, and the cops go too.

That would be a shame, small town leaders say.

“We don't have thieves here. We don't have a drug problem. You can leave things out on the lawn and they'll still be there when you get back. That's what our police department does,” Proctorville Mayor Jim Buchanan says. “I don't know how the [Lawrence County] sheriff's department would compensate for that.”

If sheriff's deputies patrolled small towns across Ohio, they would cite drivers under state law, not local ordinances, which means the villages would not get money from the tickets. They would also not get the share of court costs they do now.

But mayor's court critics say if a police department is so dependent on tickets it can't run without police constantly ticketing motorists, maybe the town's too small for its own force.

Some motorists argue the system encourages police to write tickets because their jobs depend on it.

“They're receiving money from tickets. They're depending on it for next year's budgets,” says Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorist Association, which advocates for drivers' rights. “People are being punished; it's not for safety. It almost becomes a double taxation.”

Police in New Rome, Ohio, which has 60 residents and at one time had 14 officers, became nationally known after they wrote so many tickets that mayor's court revenue constituted nearly all of the village budget.

Most of that money went back into the police department. The main two-block stretch of New Rome was labeled Ohio's most notorious speed trap.

Police in West Millgrove in Wood County acknowledge they write a fair share of tickets. Mayor's court revenue in 2001 was $73,373, more than enough to fund the police. But without the officers, drivers would speed down busy State Rt. 199, endangering the children who live in town, police Officer Peter Duty said.

“I think it would be sad for the village. There would be nobody around to watch their children, to watch for people flying down this highway,” Officer Duty says.

Four miles down the road in Wayne, police are funded in large part by a levy. According to the village's last state audit in 2001, court revenues in the town of 944 were $19,000 while police expenses were $67,000.

“We're not out to write anybody tickets,” Chief Nick Fairbanks says.

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