NEW CUMBERLAND - For the first time in recent memory, the Hancock County Sheriff's Department is increasing its complement of sworn officers.
On Thursday, two deputies were added to the force with the swearing in of Dante DiJirolanio, 26, of Chester, and Garrett Barnhart, 27, of Chester.
Both men previously served on the Chester Police Department - DiJirolanio for five years, most recently as a lieutenant, and Barnhart for two.
Hancock County Circuit Court Judge Martin J. Gaughan administers the oath of office Thursday to new sheriff's deputies, from left, Dante DiJirolanio and Garrett Barnhart, while Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher looks on. DiJirolanio and Barnhart previously served on the Chester Police Department. -- Stephen Huba
The mothers of new Hancock County sheriff's deputies Dante DiJirolanio and Garrett Barnhart pin their badges on them following Thursday's swearing-in ceremony at Hancock County Courthouse. -- Stephen Huba
Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher beamed as the new deputies were sworn in by 1st Judicial Circuit Court Judge Martin J. Gaughan on Thursday before an audience of family members, deputies and well-wishers.
"Their background is not quite impeccable but not that bad," Fletcher joked.
Fletcher said he interviewed six candidates from the current civil service list and that all candidates underwent a thorough background check. He is interviewing three more candidates to fill a third position, which will take the number of sworn deputies from 26 to 29.
The three new deputies will be used to "back fill" the department as it seeks to move three veteran road deputies into prevention resource officer positions at area elementary schools, Fletcher said.
With the passage in November 2013 of the five-year excess levy, the Hancock County school district is preparing to staff its three elementary schools with PRO officers. The levy's passage allowed the district to increase its annual security allocation from $128,000 to $380,000.
That extra money will help pay for the additional staff, as well as security technology improvements, through 2019.
Fletcher said the excess levy, while not sufficient to cover all the costs of the new PRO officers, made Thursday's hiring announcement possible.
"We are actually growing our department," he said.
Fletcher said he wanted to hire the new deputies now so that they will be prepared when the new PRO officers move into their new assignments in August. They will fill slots at Allison Elementary School in Chester, New Manchester Elementary School and Weirton Elementary School, whose construction is nearing completion.
"I'm using veteran officers (for the PRO program). I'm not using brand-new people," he said.
Six deputies applied for the PRO positions, and three were selected, Fletcher said, noting that he is not ready to announce those hirings yet.
"I gave officers an opportunity to sign up for it and explain in a cover letter why they wanted the position," Fletcher said.
During the summer months, when the PRO officers are not in the schools, Fletcher said he will use the extra officers for special investigations and special duties.
"I'm going to put them to work doing the extras - to work the problem areas of the county," he said. "It will be a benefit through the entire department."
With Thursday's hiring of DiJirolanio, Chester Police Chief Ken Thorn said he loses "one of my more excellent officers."
Thorn said he plans to fill the vacancies by administering a new civil service test. Applications will be available at Chester City Hall starting Monday.
The Chester Police Department is considered at full strength with six officers, including Thorn. Currently, the department is made up of Thorn and Patrolmen Pete Bowen, Clint Schon and Brent Bergman.
However, Bergman just left for the West Virginia State Police Academy and will not return for 16 weeks, Thorn said.
"Until city council addresses the issue of officer pay, we're going to continue to lose officers to the county," Thorn said.
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)