LINCOLN HEIGHTS, Ohio – The bills are paid and sheriff's patrols in the village are not going away anytime soon, officials say.
But some serious financial challenges still exist.
There have been reports that Lincoln Heights owes hundreds of thousands of dollars for sheriff's patrols. Not so, they said at the municipal building Thursday. I was handed copies of checks saying everything is current.
Talks are under way on a new contract, and that's where the new financial concerns emerge.
Bonnie Bach-Mitchell has lived in Lincoln Heights 35 years and has nothing but praise for the sheriff's patrols. Those started after the village did away with its scandal-ridden police force in October, 2014.
"Now we have the police protection that we have not had in the past years and I really feel safe," she said.
She recalls the I-Team investigation that prompted the city to disband its police force, and she senses criminals changed their ways.
"When they saw that there was a real police presence instead of the other police that we used to have, it has been drastically different," she said.
Now, there are questions about bills being paid on time and whether those patrols will continue.
"The service will not stop." Mayor Richard Headen insisted.
"All of the invoices presented to us by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office have been satisfied in a timely fashion."
Village Manager Rebecca Hopkins says it cost $723,000 to pay for the patrols in 2015, but the price is going up.
"This year's figure for the same level of policing that they're seeking from the village is $803,000 and we have countered that with a figure of $549,000 for their consideration," Hopkins said.
If the village has to pay more than that bottom figure, it may have make cuts elsewhere.
"The village would see a significant drop in services provided to the residents of the village, and I'm certain that we would have to lay off a few employees in doing so," Hopkins said.
"That's something that we will have to take a look at and we are taking a look at it," Headen said. "You can't wait until the last minute to take a look at something. We're looking at it now."
Hamilton County Commissioner Dennis Deters is concerned. Commissioners notified the state auditor that Lincoln Heights may be in financial distress.
"We're going to find solutions long-term to maintain public safety -- make sure that those police officers/sheriff's deputies are safe until we can sort this out," Deters said.
Bach-Mitchell takes it all in stride.
"Those are tough choices, but we are tough people. We have had circumstances that were even tougher than this in the past and we've come through."
The Ohio auditor is already here checking the books and after these new reports sent two more auditors in.
Lincoln Heights has a few other options for police patrols..
One is expanding mutual aid with Woodlawn, Wyoming, Reading, Evendale and Arlington Heights.
Another is creating a regional policing network through the Millcreek Valley.
Auditor Dave Yost’s office issued this statement Thursday:
"Yost was contacted by a representative of the Hamilton County commission late Wednesday who expressed concern over the fiscal condition of Lincoln Heights Village. As a result of that conversation and in accordance with state law, Yost directed staff to review the Village’s payables to determine if there is a fiscal distress situation that demands immediate action."
Sheriff's Office spokesperson Mike Robison issued this statement:
“We contract with multiple jurisdictions throughout the county. Just like every other incorporated village, Lincoln Heights has the statutory obligation to provide police services. With that said, Sheriff Jim Neil has met with and continues to have ongoing discussions with both county and village officials working towards finding a solution to keep the citizens safe while not jeopardizing the safety of our Deputies.”
Lincoln Heights police and fire departments were shut down Oct. 2, 2014 after a "lapse in insurance coverage.” The fire department reopened several days later, but the police department was closed permanently.
Public Entities Pool of Ohio (PEP) – an insurance group that provides property and liability coverage to public entities – terminated the village’s insurance.
At the time, Village Manager Stephanie Summerow-Dumas said coverage was pulled due to the “substantial negative financial impact” of wage disputes, employment harassment, wrongful terminations, allegations of wrongful arrest and violations of civil rights within the police department.
Twenty-three of those claims resulted in lawsuits.
PEP officials said the village could not keep up with the costs of those suits.
"Any company would look at that and see if they want to be vulnerable to offer insurance," Summerow-Dumas said. "I'm sure that came into play and they looked at some of that."
The I-Team uncovered several instances of what residents called “corruption” within the police department.
Former officer Laroy Smith was convicted in 1996 for falsification, and then violated his probation.
Former Chief Conroy Chance promoted Smith to his second in command but then demoted and fired him in 2014 after a sting operation by sheriff's investigators. Smith was arrested for felony theft while on duty.
"Within the last two years, there have been some trying times for my department," Chance told the I-Team ion 2014.
Chance said some hires at the department before his tenure were “questionable."
The chief wasn’t being figurative. The department paid $240,000 in a confidential settlement with other residents who were beaten and arrested by police in 2008 on charges that didn’t stick.
Former Vice Mayor Gary Brown and high school science teacher William Franklin said, like many, they didn’t trust the police in their village.
"We are living in a sick place when we let guys like these become officers," Franklin said, before suing the department with Brown.
Both men received cash settlements after the suit and signed "non-disparagement" agreements promising not to "in any way criticize the village of Lincoln Heights" to anyone, including "the news media."
"Officer (Steven) Maddox, Officer (David) Smack and Officer (Phillip) Capps beat me while I had my handcuffs on,” Franklin said before filing the lawsuit.
Those officers were still on the force before the department was disbanded.
Maddox was once a Cincinnati police officer, but was fired in 2005 when he was convicted of sexual imposition for groping a woman while on duty.
Capps was fired by Lincoln Heights in 2001, and then rehired. After that, he was written up for "a pattern of behavior" of flirting with female drivers, according to police documents. Officials said he also issued fake citations when the women didn't respond to "his flirtatious advances."
Capps was required to quit five biker gangs, including the "Made Men" and the "Ground Assassins," after he showed up during a jury trial in uniform to support a fellow biker charged with a felony, an internal investigation stated.
Lincoln Heights resident Marcus Simpson joined a lawsuit against the village after he was arrested on charges that were later dismissed.
"Corruption – it's embedded in Lincoln Heights,” Simpson told WCPO in 2014. "They need a house cleaning. The only way to get rid of the cancer is to cut it out – all of it. You can't leave any of it, because it will fester and re-grow. What we have here is a cancer."
That “house cleaning” came in October just days after the I-Team’s report.