MAHONING COUNTY Traffic detail prefers warnings warnings
The grant coordinator made nearly $24,000 in overtime.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Most drivers with a valid license pulled over by Mahoning County deputy sheriffs don't have to be concerned about getting a ticket.
When deputies work overtime to enforce traffic laws, mostly speeding, they hand out warnings -- not tickets -- nearly all the time.
The overtime pay (11/2 times the regular hourly rate) is made possible through a state Selective Traffic Enforcement Program grant.
Sgt. Mike Fonda, STEP grant coordinator, said the sheriff's department received $84,168 for 2003 and traffic enforcement that took place from mid-December 2002 through mid-October 2003. The department spent $62,584 for overtime and $15,640 for indirect costs, records show.
STEP funds are used for certain "blitz" periods, such as Fourth of July and Labor Day. Deputies also work select areas in the county in response to complaints about speeders.
Fonda said STEP, which this year required that deputies make at least one stop per hour, has increased the requirement to three stops per hour for 2004.
About 90 percent warnings
The Vindicator reviewed sheriff's department records for 2003. The newspaper found that deputies handed out warnings roughly 90 percent of the time for moving violations (speed/stop sign) and failure to use a seat belt or child restraint.
An activity report shows that deputies made one DUI arrest and handed out 168 citations and 1,399 warnings.
Sheriff Randall A. Wellington said warnings serve as an effective deterrent. More cars can be stopped when warnings, which take only three to four minutes to write, are given. He said violation tickets can take 10 to 15 minutes to write.
"STEP stresses citizen awareness and enforcement and officers' discretion," the sheriff said. "Citizens see us and become aware of traffic enforcement -- that's the purpose of the grant."
The grant is not used to generate revenue through tickets, he said.
Wellington said STEP has been successful and he's received positive feedback. As an example, he said traffic on Tippecanoe Road, the site of fatalities in the past, has slowed considerably in response to deputies' presence.
In September, enforcement was especially heavy on Tippecanoe and McCarty Road, one of its side streets. Deputies that month issued one ticket and 39 warnings on Tippecanoe and 38 warnings on McCarty, nearly all for speed, records show.
Over the summer, deputies worked mostly in Canfield Township. They also gave attention to a few streets in Youngstown and outlying county areas.
Warnings, not tickets, were handed out in nearly each case, records show.
In May, deputies stopped 73 drivers in school zones on South Schenley Avenue, nearly all near Volney Rogers Junior High. Most drivers had exceeded the 20 mph speed limit by more than 15 or 20 mph, but only three tickets were issued, records show.
The enforcement was effective, Fonda said.
Fonda, promoted to sergeant in September, worked the most STEP overtime hours from mid-December 2002 through mid-October 2003, earning nearly $24,000 extra, records show. His base salary is $45,534.
Wellington said it's difficult to get deputies to work STEP because of limited manpower at the sheriff's department.
"The problems we have in the jail, with the lack of personnel, those people assigned to corrections are working all the overtime they can get up there in the jail," Wellington said. "They're really not available to work patrol."
In October, Fonda received a check for 139 STEP overtime hours and another check for 90.5 STEP hours. The checks total $6,744.
Wellington didn't find the number of hours a problem.
He described Fonda as a good, efficient worker. The overtime hours don't interfere with Fonda's normal duties, the sheriff said.
In Youngstown, police working STEP overtime in 2003 issued warnings about 15 percent of the time for moving and restraint violations, records show. The city's STEP grant was $25,477.
Police Chief Robert E. Bush Jr. said officers working STEP focus on areas that have a high rate of violations, such as accidents and speed. Police typically concentrate their efforts on the Interstate 680 freeway and certain intersections where drivers often run red lights or stop signs, he said.
"We feel a violation ticket is a more appropriate deterrent than a warning," Bush said. "Drive patterns are habits; it's the same big bunch of people."
Bush said his department looks at STEP as an enforcement, not a revenue-generating effort.
For 2003, Boardman received a STEP grant of $18,739, said Capt. Jerre Patterson. Officers handed out warnings around 25 percent of the time, he said.
For 2003, Austintown received a STEP grant of $11,819, said Police Chief Gordon Ellis. Officers handed out warnings roughly 60 percent of the time, he added.