LISBON - While Sheriff Ray Stone listed for voters some of his accomplishments, his opponent John Soldano pushed that the sheriff's office should be doing more.
The two men faced off Wednesday night before about 150 county residents attending the Candidates Forum sponsored by the Morning Journal and WKBN FirstNews/Fox 17/62.
Stone said he reorganized the civil division, which put two uniformed deputies back on the road; added an additional detective to help investigate crimes; got grant money for bulletproof vests; put Civigenics employees in charge of watching video arraignments and got grant money for in-patrol car computers.
Soldano, Leetonia police chief, said his top priority if elected would be solving crimes, including working on unsolved murders and sex crimes. He said he would also be looking for funding to put deputies in the outlying schools to help keep students safe.
Stone was asked about his decision to retire in order to get his Public Employee Retirement System pension and then be rehired as sheriff. Stone said the decision actually saves the county 4.1 percent in what was being contributed to his retirement. But the reason he did it was to ensure his pension would be there with the expected changes to PERS.
Soldano said he is not in favor of double dipping. He challenged that while Stone's retirement may not have cost the county, his chief deputy's retirement and rehire cost the county $29,000. Soldano also criticized Stone for allowing his administrative assistant to also retire and rehire.
Even though he has run unsuccessfully for the position of sheriff in the past, Soldano said he is a fighter and will fight for the residents of the county. Stone challenged that if Soldano was serious about running for the position he should sign up to ride along with deputies so he can see what the job entails. He also challenged Soldano could have gone to college over the years to get a leg up if he was going to continue to run.
Unlike a village, Stone pointed out the county sheriff's jurisdiction covers 50,000 people and 532 square miles. The department's budget is $2.3 million. Soldano challenged that all calls should be answered if the crimes are going to be solved. Stone responded with having only two deputies on duty in the afternoon, a much larger amount of ground to cover than a village and 4,000 calls already this year, the situation necessitates some calls be handled by telephone.
Stone also said his budget has been cut 15 percent this year, but he has been able to handle it without any layoffs. He restructured some funds from equipment purchases to operations to get by.
When asked about the large numbers of unsolved murders, Stone noted thousands of hours are spent by his detectives working on the cases, some of which have included the additional steps of having voice stress analysis and polygraphs performed. Stone said he has looked at the case files and gives his detectives every resource available to work on the cases and follow up on leads. He noted in some cases, the file has been sent to the prosecutor's office, but the case has not been prosecuted.
"I'm not going to blame our prosecutor's office," Soldano jumped on the remark. "Our prosecutor doesn't have a magic wand to wave. He needs a good solid case to file."
Soldano said on any slow day he would begin going back through those murder case files with the detectives.
"My heart goes out to the families who have lost a love one in Columbiana County," Soldano said.
Soldano said he would aggressively seek grant money to hire a victim's advocate, someone to stay in touch with the families or victims of crimes in the county, long after the deputy has interviewed them.
Both men agree there is a big drug problem in the county. Stone said he was negotiating currently to get a K-9 unit. He notes 80 to 90 percent of the people in the county jail are there for some offense related to drugs, including stealing to get money to buy drugs. Soldano pointed out a gas station owner in Leetonia who wanted to also sell drugs is now serving eight years, thanks to the work of the drug task force including Leetonia's officer on the task force. Additionally, Soldano said more money needs to go toward treatment for drugs and alcohol. He believes some of the casino money should be earmarked to help the drug task force.