YOUNGSTOWN Citizens group seeks restitution

The playground project has continued despite the theft.
YOUNGSTOWN -- The 7th Ward Citizens' Coalition wants restitution now that its former president has pleaded guilty to stealing money collected to build a playground.
Harry Strabala, 50, of Mount Vernon Avenue, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court to theft by deception, a fourth-degree felony.
He took $33,835 from the coalition between Jan. 1, 2000, and Oct. 24, 2001. He waived a possible indictment before a grand jury and cooperated with police.
Strabala told sheriff's department detectives in a November statement that he is a compulsive gambler and is trying to get help.
What was taken: He took about $20,000 in playground proceeds from selling pickets to a fence that would surround the new Ipe Field equipment, a spaghetti dinner, a raffle and a rummage sale. He also took other coalition funds, including money earmarked for scholarships at Youngstown State University that couldn't be paid out this year.
Strabala said he intends to pay back all the money, however long it takes.
"I am completely ashamed of my actions," he said. "I am truly sorry for my actions and the people I have hurt."
Possible sentence: Judge Maureen A. Cronin told Strabala he faces a maximum sentence of 18 months in jail or probation of up to three years and a maximum fine of $2,500. He also could be ordered to pay restitution, she said.
Judge Cronin ordered a presentence investigation. Sentencing will be done by Judge R. Scott Krichbaum, she said.
The coalition is looking for restitution come sentencing time, said Wallace Dunne, the organization's president. The coalition removed Strabala as president shortly after the theft was discovered.
The coalition would send any repaid playground money to the city, Dunne said.
Park board took action: Late last year, after the coalition realized the money had been stolen, the city park board stepped in. The board voted to pay $110,000 of the $122,000 project's costs, money the department previously had set aside to improve Ipe Field.
The new playground will be similar to the youth-designed project that the coalition originally envisioned.
Marty Novotny, who heads the coalition's playground project, at one time feared the project would have to start from scratch or be dropped.
The coalition started raising money in spring 2000 for the project, which grew out of opposition to a proposed shopping center on the site.
The playground, which will be accessible to children with disabilities, should be ready in April, Novotny said.
That means neighborhood kids won't be robbed of their swings and slides despite the theft.

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