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Drug task force funding is drying up

The St. Croix Valley Drug Task Force that has been at the forefront of the battle against methamphetamine trafficking is in jeopardy of being disbanded.

Federal and state budget cuts reduced the task force's funding to $56,185 for 2008, and officials are worried that no federal money will be available for 2009.

"The indication we are getting from the Office of Justice Assistance in Madison is that next year there will be no funding for the task force," St. Croix County Sheriff Dennis Hillstead said last month.

Does that bother him?

"Well, yeah. It does," he said. "Because over the past number of years the three counties have been quite effective -- I won't say successful -- but we've been quite effective, especially with the methamphetamine problem."

Five years ago, the St. Croix, Pierce and Polk county sheriff's departments got roughly $150,000 among them to devote to the drug task force, according to Hillstead.

The departments used the money to hire a drug investigator and to pay the overtime for sheriff's investigators and police officers working drug cases.

"We used a lot of that money to reimburse the smaller departments for the overtime their officer would spend working on drug cases," Hillstead said. "And now there isn't even enough to cover the overtime for the investigators that are assigned to do the drug investigations. So we will no longer be able to support any of the local municipalities in doing drug investigations, and that is going to have a serious impact."

Hillstead said the state law passed a few years ago that put pseudoephedrine (a key ingredient in methamphetamine) behind pharmacy counters greatly reduced the number of meth labs in Wisconsin.

Arrest rates for meth possession in St. Croix, Pierce and Polk counties also have dropped, he said.

But the number of people entering treatment programs for meth addiction indicates that it is still a serious problem, he said.

He also said cocaine use appears to be on the rise as meth use tapers off.

According to the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance, the St. Croix Valley Drug Task Force conducted 244 investigations into meth production and distribution in 2007.

The investigations netted 155 arrests and located 20 hazardous dump sites.

The Office of Justice Assistance says that a 67 percent cut to the federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program put funding for Wisconsin's 18 multi-jurisdictional drug task forces in question.

In Wisconsin, funding for drug task forces has dropped from $3.7 million in 2004 to just over $1 million in 2008. Fifteen task forces have been defunded as a result of the federal budget cuts, according to the Office of Justice Assistance.

In 2004, there were 33 task forces covering every county in the state.

A news release from the Office of Justice Assistance said that if Congress doesn't reach an agreement to increase 2008 funding, the number of drug task forces in Wisconsin is likely to fall to fewer than five.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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