Benton and Franklin counties are working together to ensure a drug task force that specializes in targeting mid-level dealers can continue to crack down on trafficking in the area.
Commissioners on both sides of the river support absorbing part of the salaries of two deputy prosecutors who work closely with the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force. However, Franklin County has yet to vote on the issue.
The move would save the highly regarded task force more than $85,000 — money that is normally spent to reimburse the counties for deputy prosecutor positions. That leaves the money in the task force’s budget to be used to track down drug dealers.
A large portion of the task force’s budget comes from a federal grant, which has continued to shrink over the years.
The seven-person task force includes officers from law enforcement agencies in Kennewick, Richland, Pasco, West Richland and the two counties. The cities and counties pitch in to help pay for the unit, which officials estimate has a 2015-16 budget of about $205,550.
Benton County commissioners already agreed not to collect more than $43,000 of the federal grant from the task force. Replacement money could come from the 0.3 percent public safety sales tax passed by voters last summer and touted as a way to fund the task force.
“If the criminal tax didn’t pass, I told people we may have to shut down Metro,” said Shon Small, Benton County commissioner. “We owe it to constituents. Metro is still a huge tool which has provided years of safety.”
Last month, Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said he wanted more information on whether the task force is the “best investment” for the county’s money.
This week, the commissioners discussed absorbing the prosecutor costs, but they did not vote on the issue. They want a detailed invoice of the costs before voting because agreeing to absorb about $43,000 could mean cuts elsewhere in the Franklin County budget, Peck said.
Peck asked Prosecutor Shawn Sant and Sheriff Jim Raymond if the drug unit is the best investment for the county and the best use of their resources.
Sant said they have high conviction rates from investigations conducted by the task force and his deputy’s time is best spent working with the unit.
Pasco had the highest number of arrests or referrals by the task force in the past two years, with a total of 49, according to the unit’s annual report. The task force also served the most search warrants in Pasco during that time.
A 2014 investigation worked by the Pasco officers in the task force and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency netted 5,297 grams of heroin and 901 grams of methamphetamine. The combined street value of the drugs was valued at $760, 500.
“We get the benefit of the whole task force doing work in the county,” said Sant, who noted Metro’s investigations routinely lead to tips on other cases.
Raymond said the unit has “changed the face” of crime in Franklin County through the years and is vital to keeping strong partnerships between all the law enforcement agencies in the Tri-Cities.
The task force targets organizations, gangs or dealers who sell drugs at what is considered the mid-level — purchases more than $100 but usually under a pound. Cases that involve several pounds of drugs are typically handled by federal agencies like the DEA and FBI.
In 2014, the task force reported seizing more than $17 million worth of drugs, including heroin, meth, cocaine and prescription pills. There were 45 arrests in Benton and Franklin counties and another 14 federal arrests.
Thirty-six people were convicted in the two counties in 2014, and 19 more were convicted federally, statistics show.
There has been little if any debate among law enforcement officials and area politicians about the need for the unit or that the task force has an impact on drug crimes, gang activity and gun trafficking.
Raymond, however, called absorbing the prosecutor’s cost a short-term fix, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if the task force asked for more money from the county in the future.
Federal funding for the task force has noticeably decreased over the years and is in danger of possibly vanishing.
“I believe in the concept of Metro and believe it has a viable place, but it’s going to take money to stabilize,” Raymond told the Herald.
The task force was created in 1988 with a $500,000 federal grant. In the fiscal year that ends this month, it received about $150,000 in federal money, officials said. That will drop to under $119,000 in the next fiscal year, which starts in July.
As the federal money has diminished so has the overall budget.
In 2010, the task force spent about $450,000 to combat drug trafficking.
Members of the task force have since watched the budget decrease, with the 2014-15 budget coming in at a little more than $329,000. And officials say there was a shortfall in the budget that led to cities and counties having to fork over thousands.
However, city, county and law enforcement officials in Benton County are adamant they are committed to using public safety sales tax money to help fund the unit.
“That’s a promise we made to the voters,” said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg. “It would be my hope that if the (federal funding) went away, Metro would not go away.”