PLAIN TWP. OH Jan 7 2017 For decades, Avondale residents knew someone was watching out for them.
Now, a longstanding policing practice has been called into question and the community is looking for alternatives.
Last month, the Stark County Sheriff's office put an end to an arrangement between Avondale and a reserve sheriff's deputy dedicated to patrolling the Plain Township neighborhood.
The homeowners' association has contracted with a deputy for at least 40 years; the last 20 years with the same person, said Alan Harold, president of the Avondale Community Improvement Association.
Avondale also has bought a patrol car, equipment and insurance for the deputy, he said.
In a letter last month, Stark County Sheriff George Maier alerted Avondale that the contract was not valid and the arrangement had to end, he said.
In short, it's a matter of civil liability.
Reserve deputies aren't allowed to moonlight as private security officers because the Sheriff's Office could be held responsible for anything that happened, said Maj. C.J. Stantz.
The arrangement between Avondale and Reserve Deputy Richard Ballas was common knowledge. Avondale bought a vehicle for Ballas through the office, and when he began his shift, he radioed into county dispatch, Harold said.
"It was no secret. It had been going on for a long, long time," Harold said.
At the end of the year, Sheriff Maier did a routine audit of his office's contracts. That's when he noticed that one didn't exist between the county and Avondale for Ballas' work, Stantz said.
Ballas and Avondale instead had a private contract. Maier sent the agreement to the Stark County Prosecutor's office, which determined that the longtime arrangement was inappropriate and shouldn't legally continue, he said.
In past years, a contract with Avondale, or the lack thereof, had never come to mind, Stantz said.
Ballas did not return calls seeking comment.
The security arrangement has "always been that way," said Anthony J. DeGirolamo, who is on the board of the Avondale homeowners' group.
"At some point, the board agreed that residents wanted to pay for more patrolling. It just evolved into this," he said.
Laws change over time. It's possible that when Avondale began the practice, a private contract was allowed and the agreement was drafted in good faith, Stantz said.
"We're not throwing blame on anyone. The sheriff just has to make sure that everything is done legally and correct," he said.
Receiving the county's letter was a surprise, "but unfortunately, these things happen," Harold said.
In many institutions, longstanding practices continues for years without anyone digging deeper or asking questions, he said.
Avondale and Ballas have always been transparent with the Sheriff's Office, DeGirolamo added.
Other policies prevent Avondale from just signing a contract with the sheriff to retain Ballas. Maier's office can't contract with a private organization, just government entities, Stantz said.
Private organizations can, and regularly do, request extra protection from the county sheriff like security for an event or traffic control on a road project. But those assignments are classified as side jobs and deputies can sign up for them on a first-come, first-serve basis, Stantz said.
Other homeowners' associations use that option for increased patrol in their communities. It's one option Avondale is considering, Harold said.
In the interim, the Sheriff's Office is providing extra patrol for Avondale until a permanent arrangement is made, Stantz said.
"We're more than happy to assist them with that, we just can't have a contract," he said.
"We're here to protect the community and provide services to the community. This is unfortunate that it wasn't legal for us and them."
Avondale also is considering an arrangement with Plain Township. DeGirolamo approached the Board of Trustees at its Dec. 27 meeting about the security situation.
The township's law director is looking into whether the Plain is permitted to contract with the homeowners' association, said Trustee Scott Haws.
"We the board obviously want to help Avondale address their policing and security needs as best as we can," Haws said.
Avondale is gathering feedback on the best course of action. A letter was sent to residents Thursday on the matter.
"Certainly Avondale has always been a prominent neighborhood, well-maintained neighborhood and our residents feel it's worth spending their extra dollars to provide this coverage," Harold said.
Though Ballas has been patrolling Avondale full-time, the same security budget would only secure 20 part-time hours through the Sheriff's office.
The board is also considering contracting with a private company, DeGirolamo said.
In the meantime, residents don't need to worry.
"I have no concern about Avondale becoming less safe than it is now," he said. "We're going to make arrangements for security in Avondale in one form or another. And with the additional coverage from (Plain Township's police levy), I have no concerns about our security and safety in Avondale."