By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MASON - A dramatic decline in tickets written by troopers in one of the most congested areas in Warren County has a judge, city officials and residents crying foul.
If the decline continues at its current pace, Mason's general fund could lose up to $45,000 in court costs this year. That figure prompted criticism this week from one councilman concerned about the impact on city finances, while another expressed public safety concerns, saying the decline in ticketing was "a blank check for speeders."
State Highway Patrol officials at the Lebanon post reject suggestions that there is an intentional slowdown on Mason and Deerfield Township roads.
Instead, they blame the recent 74 percent drop in tickets on a combination of factors - extreme weather and a diversion of patrols from a stretch of Interstate 71 and the community's secondary roads to increase enforcement in high-crash construction areas of Interstate 75.
Records at Mason Municipal Court, which handles traffic and misdemeanor cases in the city and township, show that state troopers wrote 482 fewer traffic tickets for infractions such as speeding and seat belt violations in Mason and Deerfield during the first two months of 2003.
Last year, troopers wrote 652 tickets, excluding DUIs, into municipal court in January and February. The tally for this year: 170.
A district commander from the patrol is expected to meet on Tuesday with Mason Municipal Judge George Parker, whose staff has suggested that troopers stopped writing tickets after changes in court scheduling cost the officers overtime pay.
Parker stopped short of accusing the agency of holding a grudge. However, his clerk of courts, William Scherpenberg, made pointed remarks to City Council this week.
"They have a problem with us scheduling our caseload when they are on duty. They can write the ticket right up the road and get paid overtime for it," he told council members.
Parker said Wednesday that he also has heard that his outspoken style, his questioning of officers about their handling of cases and his changing courtroom rules might play a role. "I do not make derogatory remarks about anyone. I do, however, ask questions if I need information on a case. That's my sworn duty. All I want to do is do my job and do it right," Parker said.
He called the reduction in tickets a "non-issue."
"As the judge, I can't control what cases are brought to me. Whether they are more or less is entirely up to law enforcement."
But Parker was concerned enough to phone a top official at patrol headquarters in Columbus last week to report the decline in tickets.
Parker said he placed the call after he changed the scheduling for court hearings partly to accommodate a November request from patrol headquarters asking judges statewide to help eliminate trooper overtime.
"I told them I complied with their request, and that they might want to check to find out what the reaction is - that as I understand it, it is negative," Parker said.
Sgt. Ken Ward, of the patrol's Lebanon Post, said overtime is not an issue, because troopers are still getting it. They are automatically paid three hours of overtime at time-and-a-half pay for court appearances.
He said Parker's schedule hasn't affected trooper pay.
He called the drop in tickets in the area "dramatic," but said "patrol hours are down, the weather has been horrible but the job is still getting done. We are here to save lives, not write tickets."
Ward said staffing was stretched thin by a 65 percent increase in crashes caused by heavy snowstorms.
The flap has prompted criticism from one city councilman, who said he doesn't believe the court's allegations that the slowdown is the result of an overtime squabble.
"If the state patrol is trying to save overtime dollars and if they just move up the road and write a ticket, they accomplish nothing. To me, there is something else involved here," Dick Staten said.
He said he is troubled about possible ramifications on the city's budget, especially if other programs will suffer because of the loss in court revenue.
Councilman Victor Kidd lamented that less enforcement might jeopardize public safety on the heavily traveled roads that handle up to 47,000 cars a day in some areas.
"It's sad that they are staying away from Mason merely for those types of reasons," he said. "They're giving a blank check for speeders to speed as much as they want on I-71."
Deerfield resident David Young, a father of three, lives with his family off U.S. 22/Ohio 3, an area that in the past received a lot of attention from the state patrol.
"They should be big boys," Young said, critical of the troopers. "How would they feel if, God forbid, there was a serious accident out there because someone was going 90 miles an hour - just because they missed out on $50 extra in overtime."
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