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Huntington uses paving dollars to hire 10 more police officers

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By JAMES E. CASTO

For The State Journal

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said he has a message for the drug dealers who currently infest the city: “You better get the hell out. If not, we’re coming for you.”

“We are going to take our neighborhoods back,” Williams vowed at a July 24 meeting of Huntington City Council.

The Council backed the mayor’s tough talk by unanimously voting to reallocate $500,000 in the city budget to hire 10 additional police officers to bolster the community’s fight against its drug problems.

The move will transfer funds from the city’s insurance program and street paving budget. The funding includes $350,000 left over from the previous fiscal year when insurance claims decreased, and $150,000 from paving money scheduled to be spent for next spring.

“We have a more immediate need right now,” Williams said of the paving funds. “My feeling was that it is early enough in the fiscal year that we will be able to find a way to replace that money by next spring.”

Williams said Huntington’s drug problem once was primarily confined to the city’s Fairfield neighborhood, but in recent years has grown to epidemic proportions and has “spread all over the city,” he said.

“People are scared,” Williams said. “They feel like they can’t go outside with their children.”

The city has seen spikes in cocaine trafficking this year and heroin trafficking last year.

Police say Huntington has seen more than 260 drug-related offenses thus far this year. That compares with a total of 219 offenses in all 12 months of 2012. The city’s drug problem also includes one or two drug overdoses every day.

The 10 new police officers will be the second addition to the department this year. In January, the city swore in five new probationary patrol officers. The new hires will bring the department to 121 sworn officers and 137 employees overall. Williams said the hope is to have the new officers in place by the end of the year, depending on the availability of training slots. In addition to the new officers, a new information technology position will be created.

Police Chief Jim Johnson told council members their action brings “a new day in Huntington.”

“It shows you realize the problem we have on the street,” Johnson said. “The Huntington Police Department is going to bring it and we’re going to bring it hard.”

Johnson is serving as the department’s chief on a temporary basis while Huntington seeks a permanent replacement for Chief Skip Holbrook, who left for a chief’s job in Columbia, South Carolina, in the spring.

Williams has said the hunt for a new chief has proven to be slower than expected and could continue for “several weeks.” A citizen search committee reviewed 37 resumes, interviewed eight applicants and recommended four names. The delay has apparently involved detailed background checks being conducted on the finalists.