Sunday, September 19, 2004

Donations bolster drug strike force

Firms respond to crisis

By Jim Hannah
Enquirer staff writer

The HR director for a novelty gifts company in Hebron cut a $400 check.

The general manager of a countertop fabricator in Crescent Springs sent $200.

Others offered food or equipment.

The donations began trickling in this month after the director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force sent out 800 letters asking for donations to keep viable the only organization dedicated solely to fighting the illegal drug trade in Boone, Campbell, Kenton and Grant counties.

The director, retired Covington Police Lt. Col. Jim Liles, said he decided to bring the funding crisis to the attention of the community after seeing yearly cuts to his budget as the state shifts more attention to drug treatment and education.

"It's kind of sad, if you ask me," said Carol Eckstein, human resources director for Galerie, the Hebron company that designs novelty gifts. "Every hour they spend on the phone soliciting money is an hour they are not out on the streets catching drug dealers."

This fiscal year, the strike force was award $167,369 from the federal Edward Byrne grant. Liles had requested $183,188 for the fiscal year that runs from July 1 through June 30 of next year.

In both fiscal year 2003 and 2002, the task force received $176,178 in federal money. In 2001 it was $169,578, and in 2000 it was $174,823.

"When you look at the numbers, you can see a clear trend," said Liles, who was appointed director in late March. "My goal is to keep this unit afloat. Local politicians say that's their goal too, but I'm worried they are going to be able to find the money in the future."

The federal grant, combined with matching funds from local governments, brought the strike force's total budget for this fiscal year to $315,997.

Liles said the strike force has depended on forfeiture money to get by in the past, but that source of revenue has dried up. Instead of busting cash rich drug, the strike force has found itself closing down clandestine methamphetamine labs.

"They are drug addicts who are cooking meth to support their own habit," Liles said. "They have no money to seize."

Liles said the decreased funding means he must cut overtime and the amount of money available to make undercover drug buys.

"It's a double edge sword," Liles said. "You can't make big drug seizures without paying officers overtime and giving them money to make undercover buys. And without the drug seizures, you are not going to increase your forfeiture money."

Dayton, Ky., Police Chief Mark Brown, a former undercover drug commander in Cincinnati, said he sympathizes with Liles.

"I know what he is trying to do - on a nothing budget," he said. "I know what he is up against. Northern Kentucky really needs this unit. It wouldn't hunt if it was twice as big."

Fort Mitchell Police Chief Steve Hensley said the strike force brings an extra level of policing to Northern Kentucky. He said it investigates cases to large for his force to tackle but too small for the DEA to take interest in.

Last fiscal year the strike force investigated 284 cases and made 205 arrests.

Thor Morrison with the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy in Frankfort said this fiscal year's cuts were based on the recommendations of the Statewide Drug Control Assessment Summit.

"What we heard over and over again is there needs to be money for treatment," he said. "This forced us to look at our priorities and make hard choices."

The state was awarded a total of $6.9 million from the federal Byrne grant. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, which that administers the block grant, says it is up to the states to decide what percent to spend on treatment, education and law enforcement.

"Personally, I'm amazed there isn't more money provided to the strike force," said Charles Lunsford, general manager of Triple SSS Fabricators, the Crescent Springs company that donated $200. "I hope you will see the community step up and support what Jim Liles is trying to do."



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