By Staff and wire report
Montana's efforts to combat illegal drug trafficking could be crippled by a planned reduction in federal aid that is used to help finance eight state or regional drug task forces, Attorney General Mike McGrath said Monday.
He asked a legislative subcommittee working on budgets for the Justice Department and Board of Crime Control to approve his request to replace the $1.13 million in federal money annually that will be lost after July 1.
''I'm very concerned that this will severely jeopardize our ability to do drug enforcement in a coordinated fashion,'' McGrath said.
Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel said in an interview today that the Tri-Agency Drug Task Force is a key element of law enforcement in the area. The loss of the federal money, he said, would limit the agency's ability to combat illegal drugs.
"I believe the local drug task force is doing a superb job of handling the drug problem in our community," he said. "Without them, we would have an open door in Hill County and in Havre, and drug usage would increase."
The Board of Crime Control received $2.4 million from the federal government in the current budget year and distributed $2.1 million of that to a statewide drug task force and seven regional ones. But congressional action last month means the state can expect to received $1.3 million for the coming year, or 57 percent of the existing amount.
Unless the Legislature replaces the money, McGrath said, the board will have to decide how to divide up a much smaller pot of money. The result could be no money for some of the task forces and that could damage the state's ability to maintain a widespread drug enforcement network, he said.
''You can't do drug enforcement part time,'' McGrath said. ''You can't do it in isolation. They (traffickers) move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. You need cooperation with numerous agencies and building informants and working undercover.''
Gallatin County Sheriff Jim Cashell said Montana has to stop relying on uncertain sources of money for its premier drug-fighting efforts.
''We really ought to start funding these things with hard money'' from the state that can be relied upon year after year, he said.
Local governments that are partners in the regional drug task forces already put up about a fourth of the money for operations, and cannot afford to fill the gap created by the federal funding loss, Cashell added.
The Tri-Agency Task Force, which is based in Havre and covers Hill, Blaine, Chouteau, Phillips, Liberty and Judith Basin counties, along with the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy's Indian reservations, received $172,829 in federal funds distributed by the Montana Board of Crime Control this fiscal year. The money was matched with local funds totaling $74,070.
According to the board's Statistical Analysis Center, Tri-Agency made 47 of the 420 methamphetamine arrests statewide in one 12-month period. The busts included four for possession, 17 for manufacture and 26 for distribution. The figures are for fiscal year 2003, extending from July 2003 to June 2004, and are the latest available.
Without the federal money, Tri-Agency's ability to keep methamphetamine off the streets could be hampered, along with the efforts of the state's six other multi-agency task forces and the Statewide Drug Task Force, officials said.
"It would significantly reduce our ability to have statewide drug enforcement," said the board's executive director, Roland Mena. "It would reduce the number of agents that are out there doing the work. Those are the people out there doing the buys. There will be a reduction in the number of drugs that are taken out of our communities. Kind of a net result will be an increase in drug availability, production and distribution."
In Gallatin County, available funding cannot keep up with the rapid population growth that has reached 34 percent over the past eight or nine years, Cashell said. Without replacement of federal money, the Missouri River Drug Task Force that covers the Bozeman area would have only enough money to operate half a year, he said.
McGrath said the state has used federal money for the task forces for at least a decade. The concept was encouraged by federal officials, he said.
"They've been very effective," McGrath said. "Drugs are like water; they don't know boundaries. It's not unusual that a case would start in Havre and end up in Helena. It's real important that we get local organizations joined together as a task force to deal with these issues."
He said the request for state funding was not part of the budget submitted to the Legislature, but news of the federal spending cut came too late.