About 30 Alabama drug task forces face cutbacks this year and possible elimination next year unless local governments pitch in to make up for reduced federal funds.
Some officials say drug crimes will rise if task forces are scaled back. They say it's a bad time to cut task forces, partly because of the spread of methamphetamine, an addictive, illegal stimulant used heavily in some rural areas.
"Within the past month, we've taken off the street way over a million dollars worth of drugs," said Paul Kilgore, director of the Walker County drug task force. "We've recovered over 20 pounds of meth. These drugs we're taking off the street aren't going to the kids."
Drug task forces are joint efforts between sheriff and police departments, sometimes from more than one county. Federal grants help pay salaries and allow the departments to assign officers and investigators to work together on drug enforcement full-time.
In some areas, the task forces handle all the felony drug investigations.
Last year, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs awarded about $7.65 million in task force grants, said Jim Plott, an ADECA spokesman. This year the agency has just $5.23 million available.
President Bush's proposed budget for 2006 eliminates drug task force grants, said Robert Pruit, director of the Law Enforcement and Traffic Safety Division of ADECA, which awards the grants.
Pruit said the task force program, in place for at least 15 years, has worked. "I think without it, we're going to go backward," Pruit said.
To stretch fewer dollars as much as possible, Pruit said ADECA is asking for a 50 percent match from local governments this year, up from 25 percent last year.
Most of this year's cuts have not taken effect. Grants are awarded at various times, and most are due for renewal at the end of May or later in the year.
A methamphetamine task force named this month by Alabama Attorney General Troy King discussed task force funding at its first meeting, Wednesday, King said. The task force has asked ADECA for statistics on task force enforcement activity. The numbers will be used in a letter to Alabama's congressional delegation to ask that funding be restored, he said. "We want to show what the impact will be if we stop funding them," King said.
ADECA requires task forces to submit quarterly reports on arrests and other enforcement activities. Task forces also provide statistics and goals in their annual grant applications. In its first four years of operation, ending last July, the Covington County task force closed 145 meth labs and arrested 939 people, according to its 2005 grant application. The task force is a cooperative effort between the sheriff's department and police departments from Andalusia, Opp and Florala, as well as the district attorney's office.
Andalusia Police Chief Wilbur Williams said task forces with proven records should not lose funding. "There should be some type of performance-based analysis of what good these task forces are doing," Williams said.
Plott said enforcement statistics will be a factor in determining grant amounts. But even successful task forces should not rely on grants permanently, ADECA spokesman Larry Childers said. "Everyone is told there is never any guarantee that money will continue at a certain level," Childers said. "We're at the mercy of forces out of our control. The hope is always that the value will be demonstrated and some other source of funds will pick up the slack."
Williams said he hopes that would happen in Covington County. "It would be my conclusion and recommendation that the city of Andalusia find the money to continue the task force because it has been so successful," Williams said.
Kilgore said he had doubts about the ability of governments in Walker County to sustain the task force without federal aid.
"These counties and cities aren't going to have the money," Kilgore said. He said the task force busts an average of about two meth labs per week.
In a statement issued in response to questions, Virginia Davis, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said, "Senator Shelby is well aware of the president's budget regarding Department of Justice grants. He has serious concerns with the cuts the president has proposed."
These violent home-invading drug gangs (task forces) are terrified at the prospect of having to get a real job. I predict a sharp rise in asset forfeiture.