Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
Local law enforcement agencies are stepping in and tightening their own belts to help the local drug task force get through a year that has left the agency with a 78 percent cut in federal funding, with the hope that a proposal to raise the funding back for next year will pass Congress. “The Havre Police Department and the Hill County Sheriff’s Office are going to be paying the wages of the person they provide (to the force),” said Pete Federspiel, team leader for the Tri- Agency Safe Trails Task Force based out of Havre. “We’re still operating at the same level, it just puts some strain on the guys that are on patrol.” In December 2007, Congress approved a line in an omnibus spending bill that cut the federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program from from $520 million in Fiscal Year 2007 to $170.4 million for Fiscal Year 2008, a 67 percent cut. Hill County Commissioner Mike Anderson, chair of the Montana Board of Crime Control, said that the cuts were even deeper for Montana because, ironically, the reported rate of violent crime dropped in the state. “We also took a 12 percent cut on top of (the 67 percent reduction) because of an improved crime rate,” Anderson said Friday. That dropped the Montana JAG allocations from $1.4 million to less $337,000, a 76 percent drop. Of Montana’s JAG funding, 90 to 95 percent has been used to fund operations and the salaries of the state drug task forces. Local agencies step in Mark Thatcher, public safety bureau chief for the Board of Crime Control and state administrator of the JAG funds, said local law enforcement has stepped up to the plate to help continue the operation of the state’s six drug task forces. “It looked like we could lose as many as three task forces ,” Thatcher said. “To date we haven’t lost any, I think because the local agencies have stepped up when the chips were down.” The Hill County Sheriff’s Office and the Havre Police Department have said they are diverting part of their budgets to pay for an agent from each office to work on the Tri-Agency task force, a decision that will reduce their own forces but will be worth it, said Hill County Sheriff Don Brostrom. “I think it has a huge impact,” Brostrom said. “I would do anything in my power to keep it intact.” Havre Police Chief Jerry Nystrom, who was the task force’s team leader before he took the position as chief in May, said his department will operate short one staff member to keep the task force going. “I just opted to be one man short,” he said this morning. “It’s definitely a problem it puts less people on the street and puts a hardship and burden on the officers.” But, he said, having the agents committed to investigating drug crimes keeps other crimes down as well. While police officers and sheriff’s deputies can fight drug crimes, they can’t commit time to large-scale investigations like the task force can. Reducing the trafficking of drugs also reduces property crimes and violent crimes coming directly from drug sales and reduces incidental crimes like partner or family member abuse stemming from the effects of the drugs right down to driving under the influence of intoxicants where the driver is using drugs, he said. “It has an effect on everything, one way or another,” Nystrom said, adding that it has taken 21 years for the task force to make the progress that it has made. “We can’t let it go to the wayside or we’d be in big trouble.” Funding sought Congress has taken steps to restore the funding for the next fiscal year, and Montana’s U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is once again trying to boost the funding for this year. While the bills have not been passed on the floor and signed into law, committees of both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed bills that would restore JAG funding for next year to previous levels. Jed Link, a spokesman for Montana’s U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, said Friday that Rehberg is working hard to get the appropriations bill containing the 2009 funding passed. Tester and Montana’s U.S. Sen. Max Baucus also both supported adding $490 million in a supplemental spending bill that would have restored JAG funding for 2008, but that money was removed in the House, Baucus’ office said. Tester is again trying to restore that funding for this year, requesting the $490 million be added to an emergency spending bill now being discussed. “Montana can’t afford law enforcement budget cuts or veto threats when it comes to keeping our streets safe,” Tester said. “It’s why Max and I are working so hard in Congress to get this money restored. And we’ll keep fighting and working across party lines to make sure Montana’s rural economies have the services they need and deserve.” Baucus also said he will work to keep the 2009 funding alive. “Our law enforcement officers are fighting the good fight against drug use, and they deserve all the help we can give them,” he said. “I’m pleased that funding was restored for 2009, and you can bet Jon and I will fight like the dickens to make sure our officers have the funding they need to keep Montanans safe, help create jobs and boost Main Streets on the Hi-Line and across Montana.” Nystrom said he is always optimistic about the funding for the task forces, but finding funding for the Tri- Agency task force has been a battle every year since it was created in 1987. “It’s never a guarantee until the money hits the desk,” he said.