Pubdate: Sun, 03 Feb 2008
Source: News-Gazette, The (Champaign, IL)
Copyright: 2008 The News-Gazette
Author: Steve Bauer


A two-thirds cut in federal funding for a drug enforcement program 
could wipe out rural task force groups in Danville and Mattoon.

In December, Congress approved cuts of 67 percent for a program 
included under the Omnibus Appropriations Bill for the federal fiscal 
year beginning in October. The Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance 
Grant program cut was $350 million or 67 percent nationwide, said 
Lori Levin, director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

"This is the backbone of our drug enforcement money," Levin said. 
"This will clearly (affect) our programs. It's really a threat to law 
enforcement programs in Illinois."

About $12.4 million was allocated in 2007, according to Levin. 
Federal funding in 2006 was about $8.5 million; $14.5 million in 
2005; and $20 million in 2004.

Allocations for 2008 have not yet been determined, but federal 
funding statewide under the JAG grant could drop by two-thirds, based 
on congressional action so far. Levin said Illinois officials are 
working with the state's congressional delegation to see if any 
funding can be restored through an emergency appropriations bill.

"If we can get the additional dollars, that would be helpful," she 
said. "We will try to maintain people as much as possible."

Two area multijurisdiction drug task force groups have used the 
federal money to pay for manpower and equipment that individual 
police departments could not ordinarily afford, officials say.

For the Vermilion County Metropolitan Enforcement Group, which 
includes officers from the sheriff's office, Danville and Hoopeston 
police and Illinois State Police, the cuts would mean their budget 
would drop from $144,000 to about $48,000.

Master Sgt. Steve Guess, task force commander, said the group 
currently has four drug agents whose salaries come from the federal 
funds. The cuts would mean losing three of the four, he said.

"That would be a dramatic hit for us," Guess said.

VMEG also has five other agents with money from Danville and 
Vermilion County, so the unit staffing would be reduced by one-third.

Guess said the loss of funding and staffing will severely hamper drug 
investigations in the county, and more violent crimes and property 
crimes are likely without the task force to keep a lid on drug trafficking.

That will fall on local communities, Vermilion County Sheriff Pat 
Hartshorn said. Drug crimes do not stand alone at the local level: 
Burglary, theft, robbery, shootings and stabbings are all byproducts 
of drug trafficking, he said.

"This is a manpower-intensive situation," Hartshorn said. "The more 
manpower means more cases, which means more crime investigated by 
local agencies and increased costs for local government.

"It's a vital program. It's an area where the federal government can 
help the local government with the real war on drugs done at the local level."

For the East Central Illinois Task Force, which includes Coles, 
Douglas and Moultrie county sheriff's deputies, along with Mattoon, 
Charleston, Arcola and Eastern Illinois University police 
departments, the cuts would drop federal funding from about $107,000 
to about $36,000.

"The real losers are going to be the people in the communities," said 
Sgt. Mark Peyton, the task force commander.

The cuts will mean the task force will lose two officers, including a 
16-year veteran drug investigator and squad leader, he said. The 
group also will lose money for its intelligence officer, who 
collects, analyzes and tracks information on suspected drug trafficking.

Collaborative efforts are the only way rural agencies can effectively 
investigate drug trafficking, Peyton said.

"The units we are talking about are some of the most effective in law 
enforcement," he said. "That unit gets the most information on drug 
production and distribution. They are the most up-to-date with 
training and equipment.

"Taking money from us will mean less dismantling of some midlevel 
trafficking groups in Illinois. That's what we do."

Douglas County Sheriff Charlie McGrew organized the local task force 
when he was previously with the state police.

"For drug prosecution in this area, (the cuts) will be very hard to 
overcome," McGrew said. "I sincerely hope they are able to restore 
those funds."

He said the federal government appears to be shifting drug 
enforcement funding to the National Guard, which seems "a little bit 
backward" to him.

"It takes specialized manpower and equipment," McGrew said. "We have 
the system in place now that is the best system for agencies of our size."

The sheriff said the collaborative effort of the task force groups 
has been seen in East Central Illinois, with prevention and 
enforcement of crimes involving methamphetamine. When he started with 
the task force in 1989, there were only two meth labs reported, McGrew said.

Meth problems rose rapidly between 2001 and 2005, with Coles and 
Douglas counties among the hardest hit.

Tougher laws related to the sale of materials key to the making of 
meth and tougher sentencing for meth crimes helped deter meth labs, 
according to McGrew. But drug investigations were also a key part of 
stemming the crime wave, he said.

"That's why it's important to have a drug unit," McGrew said. "That 
unit gets the most information on drug production and distribution. 
They are the most up-to-date with training and equipment."

Phil Bloomer, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, said 
Johnson has met with area drug enforcement commanders and has been 
talking with members of the House Appropriations Committee about 
possible restoration of some funding.

"It doesn't look good for this year," Bloomer said of the 
appropriations. "We are still trying to work with appropriations. We 
are well aware how vital the work of these guys is.

"These guys have done a fantastic job again and again. This really 
knocks a hole in their operations."

Bloomer said the House's omnibus funding bill covered $555 billion in 
programs. That funding covers many other agencies, he said.

"The problem is you can't pick and choose," he said. "You've got to 
vote it up or down. It's an insidious problem."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom