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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2005

Foundation aims to boost Fostoria's police ranks

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FOSTORIA - Months later, Judy Miller remembers the moment she decided her hometown needed her help to put more police officers on the street.

"I had seen a drug deal in the middle of the day," recalled the chairman of the Greater Fostoria Community Foundation. "And I said, 'We can't let this happen in our town any longer. We need to do something about it.' "

At the urging of Mrs. Miller and her husband, Don, the community foundation has proposed a fund-raising campaign to pay for three additional law enforcement officers to help Fostoria's depleted police department combat drug activity and related crimes.

Mrs. Miller hopes to raise enough money from local corporations and other donors to pay five years of salaries, benefits, training, and equipment for three officers, who could serve as Fostoria officers or sheriff's deputies for the three counties the city is divided among: Hancock, Seneca, and Wood.

She estimated that the foundation would need to raise at least $150,000 a year to fund the plan.

"It's a lot of money, but I think we can do it," Mrs. Miller said. "Fostoria's a very generous community. We've always stepped to the plate when there's been a need."

Mrs. Miller, who is a co-owner of WFOB-AM and the twice-weekly Fostoria Focus newspaper, has lived in Fostoria for about 40 years.

She said drug trafficking is a blot on a city that is otherwise a good place to earn a living and raise a family.

"It affects the quality of life in town. It affects the ability to get new people to come to town and live," Mrs. Miller said. "It's a great community, but we have this one flaw, and we need to solve this problem."

During the last several years, Fostoria hasn't had enough police to do that, city and law enforcement officials said. The police department, which once had an authorized strength of 28 officers, was down to 17 uniformed personnel earlier this year because of a continuing city budget crunch.

The department has had no detective bureau since 2002, when the city laid off three police officers and six dispatchers. Recent hirings have brought the ranks back up to 21 officers, but acting Chief Phil Hobbs said the force is still undermanned.

"2005 has probably been the worst year of my career as far as the manpower situation," said Chief Hobbs, who has been with the department since 1979.

"We've been losing guys for years, and with the budget situation, they never were replaced."

Meanwhile, the number of calls for help from the public has gone up.

In 2003, according to department statistics, Fostoria police handled 11,911 criminal complaints, emergency calls, and other requests for service. In 2004, the number of calls rose to 13,138. Through the first 10 months of this year, the department had handled 10,817 calls.

The number of drug complaints rose from 150 in 2003 to 250 last year. So far in 2005, the department has logged 234 narcotics complaints.

Mayor John Davoli started a high-profile campaign against drug activity after taking office in 2000, but acknowledges that as the police department's ranks slipped, so did the war on drugs.

"Back in 2001, when we still had a decent general fund, we hammered it like crazy," he said. "It was hard to buy a marijuana cigarette in town, we were hitting it so hard."

The mayor called the foundation's plan "a great idea" and said he saw how having extra police on the streets deterred crime on Nov. 11, when he accompanied the Seneca County Drug Task Force's METRICH Enforcement Unit during a narcotics sweep.

During the overnight operation in central Fostoria, the unit made one arrest for trafficking in cocaine, five arrests for marijuana possession, and issued numerous traffic citations.

"We had over 10 cars patrolling the area," Mr. Davoli said.

Seneca County Sheriff Tom Steyer said the county's METRICH drug enforcement unit, which includes his office, the Tiffin police department, and the Fostoria police force, spends more than half of its time conducting operations in Fostoria, even though the city has no officers assigned to the task force.

"I think, in a way, it is a little bit unfair," the sheriff said. "Tiffin's got some problems of their own as far as manpower. We're out picking up a lot for Fostoria, I believe. Right now, it seems like there's a lot of drug activity in Fostoria so we have to deal with the problem in Fostoria."

Sheriff Steyer said he supports the idea of having a new contingent of officers to focus on Fostoria's drug trade, whether they're assigned to the police force or the sheriff's departments.

Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn agreed.

"There's definitely a problem in Fostoria," he said. "I think everyone realizes that, and I'm willing to do anything I can as sheriff to help [solve] that problem. I'm cautiously optimistic that something positive is going to come from this."

Contact Steve Murphy at: smurphy@theblade.com or 419-724-6078.



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