The Lancaster County Drug Task Force – which targets mid- to upper-level dealers and monitors trends in trafficking and drugs of choice – is likely facing a funding crisis in the very near future.
District Attorney Craig Stedman is asking the county to address the long-term lack of reliable and consistent funding for the DTF, citing the ongoing opioid epidemic and a developing meth epidemic which threatens every community in Lancaster County.
Stedman asked the board of commissioners at an Oct. 31 budget meeting to provide a more stable funding stream for the Task Force, which has operated since 1988 – with the county financially contributing a small percentage of operating costs.
The Task Force is a team of detectives (from municipal police departments) that uses undercover and surveillance tactics to combat higher-level trafficking across the county, conducting search operations and filing criminal charges.
At the Oct. 31 meeting, Stedman said that although education, prevention, and long-term treatment are critical, “enforcement is part of the answer” to slowing the epidemic and specifically dealing, which is trending locally to include more methamphetamine-dealing. Cocaine also remains prevalent with dealers.
The Lancaster County DA’s office’s treatment of fatal overdoses as potential homicides - in combination with its harsh policies against predator-level heroin/fentanyl-dealing - has prompted some dealers to change their approach and product to drugs which do not carry the same overdose risks, according to the DTF.
Lancaster County leads the entire state of Pennsylvania in drug delivery resulting in death convictions. That aggressive prosecution and other DA’s office policies against predator dealers are having a direct impact.
Whereas York and Dauphin counties have seen increases in overdose deaths this year, Lancaster County’s fatality rate has dropped, according to news reports.
In fact, the DTF is now, for the first time ever, handling more meth cases than heroin.
That said, there is still an abundance of heroin and fentanyl here causing daily overdose emergencies; the crisis still exists.
The Task Force operates largely on assets and funds gained in forfeitures and voluntary contributions from municipalities.
The state Attorney General provides some funds, but that is voluntary and has decreased significantly over the years.
The county is the final source of funding and pays only about 15 percent of the operating costs of the DTF.
That “simply isn’t enough for the value the county is getting,” Stedman said at the meeting. “We are no doubt saving lives, we’re saving communities.”
“We need to change the formula, if you want to keep” the Task Force, Stedman said.
Forfeiture funds, amassed from seizures of drug-related assets and cash, vary from year to year.
The Task Force, according to DTF Detective Sgt. John Burkhart, has been getting by in recent years largely due to two big seizures, the biggest in 2011.
“We’re on the verge of a methamphetamine epidemic,” Burkhart told the commissioners. (The Task force has made 30 meth-related arrests and executed 13 meth-related search warrants this year.)
Also, more municipal police departments want to contribute an investigator to the Task Force due to the current epidemic situation.
Yet, Burkhart said, the Task Force could not afford to pay them under the current funding mechanism.
Municipality leaders have been asked, since the Task Force’s inception 30 years ago, to contribute a dollar per person in their municipalities.
Some contribute that dollar, some contribute a fraction; some contribute nothing at all.
Even if all municipalities contributed in full, current DTF funding would still fall short.
Stedman said this funding scheme is a failure: “We can’t ignore it, the Board of Commissioners can’t ignore it.”
Stedman pointed to an analysis done by Lancaster County Budget Services in 2014, and recently updated, that shows the impending funding shortage.
At the meeting, Maggie Weidinger, director of budget services, said the Task Force would not be sustainable by 2020.
Commissioner Craig Lehman said options include making the current, shared-responsibility system work or operate off a completely different funding model.
Stedman stressed “this is the best Task Force we have ever had” while asking the board to “take the lead” in committing to a permanent funding solution.
(Photo of recent DTF seizure.)
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