Do you feel safe inside your home?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 29, 2005

They say when it rains, it pours and perhaps no one can understand the truth of that adage right now better than residents in the Village of Athalia.

A week ago, the village's police department was closed in a cost-cutting move. A few days later, village officials turned out the street lights because there was no money to pay the bill.

Now, residents are up in arms because of reports that an alleged child molester is moving into the small community. Athalia residents say any one of the three issues is a cause for concern. Together, no police, no street lights and fear for safety is a cocktail for disaster.

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All across Lawrence County, residents are concerned about budget cuts that have resulted in either law enforcement layoffs or have prevented their communities from hiring badly needed additional officers.

This year the villages of Athalia, Proctorville and South Point have all laid off police officers - although Proctorville's force deduction was due to decreased traffic in the village, Mayor Jim Buchanan said.

Other municipalities, including Ironton, Chesapeake, Hanging Rock and Coal Grove, have not laid off any officers, but officials there said they wish they could put more cops on the streets, but lack the funds to do so.

Meanwhile, residents wonder who is living beside them and, if they need help, who will come to help them.

A real problem

"I think it sucks," Athalia resident Georgianna Sexton said when she was asked her thoughts on the loss of her village's police department.

Sexton said when she confronted the people who are allegedly allowing a child molester to move into their property, Sexton said she was told not to worry.

"They said 'an 80-year-old man can't do anything,'" she said. "Horse feathers!"

Her neighbor, Joe Webb said he isn't worried about his own family's safety now that the police are laid off, the street lights turned off and the village gossip has taken a grim tone.

"I feel a whole safer since I bought me a pistol," he said. But Webb said he worries about all the children who live in the area.

"That alley over there stays full of kids. That's where they ride their bikes."

The Athalia department was small: A full-time chief and four auxiliary officers. Still, for residents in the small eastern enclave, the department provided a measure of security they no longer have.

Athalia officials said they hope the Lawrence County Sheriff's Office and the Ohio State Highway Patrol can handle police matters in the village from now on. But the sheriff's office has its worries, too.

With more than 400 square miles to cover, deputies often find the drive between calls long and work load too much for the 15 road patrol deputies that handle operations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ask many Lawrence County residents and you get the same story: Deputies have too many calls, too little time and too many miles to travel between those calls.

Webb remembered that once he called the sheriff's office and the deputies on patrol were so busy they couldn't give him a time when they could respond to his call.

Like many law enforcement agencies these days, the sheriff's office is not rolling in dough. The salaries line item for the department is expected to run short of money in September. What will happen after that is anyone's guess.

"Me and a couple of the other neighbors talked and we said we're just going to have to bind together," Webb said.

Around the county

Rebecca and David Hager live in Perry Township just outside the South Point village limits.

"I can't say there is a lot of crime but there is a lot of drugs," Rebecca Hager said.

Hager is convinced Lawrence County needs more people wearing uniforms "to catch people doing drugs. And once they catch them, they need to do something besides just snack their hand and let them go," she said.

"If something is going on in our neighborhood, they may come and they may not and he would be long gone before they ever get there," she said.

Hager said she had to call the sheriff's office once approximately a year ago on a neighbor creating a disturbance. She said it took a while before a deputy arrived. She was surprised to learn Lawrence County has only 15 road deputies to handle calls such as hers.

"We need more of them," she said. "And they probably need to be paid more."

She said one neighbor in particular concerns her because there are people going in and out of that residence at all hours of the day and night.

Hager recalled that recently, an elderly handicapped neighbor was the victim of a robbery. His car and money were taken.

Tina Ison, of Pine Grove in Elizabeth Township, said there is "probably" crime in her neighborhood but nothing that has affected her personally. Ison said, however, she is aware that people living further out in the country often have a lengthy wait when they call for help.

"I think we need more officers, most definitely, for all of Lawrence County," Ison said. "I know people who have called and the deputies were just tied up, couldn't get there."

Bertha Reynolds, of Pedro said the same thing. "There is so much meanness going on anymore," she said. "I feel there should be more than what there is."

Flip side of the coin

Tara Farren also lives in Athalia. Farren said she wouldn't miss the police.

One of the officers, she said, used to harass kids playing ball in the street. She said when she lived in Proctorville, she had had run-ins with the police there.

"It doesn't bother me a bit. I think it's a big relief," she said.


With municipalities' budgets getting tighter and tighter and costs rising, residents may be asked to contribute more money to keep vital services operating.

Earlier this year, Ironton Mayor John Elam wanted city council to approve a municipal fee that would have, among other things, raised money to hire new police officers. Council rejected the idea.

South Point voters have twice rejected the idea of a police levy. Village Clerk Scott Thomas said there are no definite plans to try a third time but he imagines South Point officials will try some time in the future to put a levy on the ballot again.

Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton has asked the Lawrence County Commission repeatedly to make his department a recipient of the county's half-percent sales tax monies.

In Athalia, some residents said the idea of a fee to fund essential services doesn't sound like a bad idea.

Both Georgianna Sexton and Webb are willing to pay a dollar or two a month if it would keep an officer on the street and the street lights on in their village.

"If people in this town would put in a dollar, maybe $2, maybe we could have a police officer and the street lights back on. We've got no street lights, no police, to me, that's terrible," Georgianna Sexton said. "This is a one-horse town and we've done shot the horse."