By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
A 21-year old partnership between the city and county to investigate drug cases is coming to an end, but that doesn't mean the two departments cannot work together, according to Meridian's police chief.
Chief James Lee said the city can no longer afford to participate in the East Mississippi Drug Task Force. Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie is disappointed in Lee's decision, saying the majority of cases the task force investigated throughout the years have originated in the city.
The agreement between the city and county requires that either member wishing to leave the task force to give a written notice — with a return receipt — at least 30 days prior to the proposed end of the arrangement.
"I have not received that letter yet," Sollie said on Monday. "Once the letter is received, 30 days from that date is when the party is officially excused from the task force."
Lee wouldn't comment on whether Sollie had received notice.
Some 75 percent of drug cases originate in the city, Sollie said, and the county in recent years, has had a larger presence on the drug task force. The future of the task force was in question earlier this year when Sollie learned that federal dollars to states for drug task forces were being dramatically reduced because of sequestration.
Last year the city and county each put up $23,000 as required under the terms of the federal grant, which was nearly $142,000. In addition, the city paid the salary of the one drug task force agent it had. With benefits, Sollie said, that is about $50,000. The Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department has eight agents and two administrative assistants on the task force. Along with its $23,000 contribution to match the grant, the county paid about $345,000 to fund the task force, Sollie said. He said he doesn't know if they will receive anything this year.
"The originating interlocal agreement called for the city to have five agents and the county to have two agents. As years have gone by the numbers have changed. When this administration took office, the city had three agents and the county had eight agents. The county had two civilian administrative assistants," Sollie said. "Of those 10 county employees, five of them had their salary partially refunded by a grant we receive from the state."
Sollie said there is now a possibility that he will have to move one of the administrative assistants and four of the agents out of the task force and put them in other vacancies in the sheriff's department. He is concerned that all of this will further limit drug enforcement.
"One of the big complaints we always hear is about the big arrests, the big busts. We are a local law enforcement agency. We don't have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy drugs with to do the big busts," Sollie said. "Neither the City Council, nor the Board of Supervisors provide funding to purchase drugs for undercover work to charge someone with the sale of narcotics."
Traditionally, money has been used from seized and forfeited assets, he said, but some of that funding will leave the county now, Sollie said. In the past, 80 percent went to the initiating agency and 20 percent was divided among assisting agencies.
"Having that partnership in the past allowed for 100 percent of seized and forfeited assets to stay in Meridian and Lauderdale County," he said.
In the absence of a partnership, 20 percent goes to the state, Sollie said.
Historically, seized money has been used to do undercover drug purchases. The city would put up $5,000 which would be used until it was spent and then the county would put up $5,000 of seized money.
"With the potential of the city going away, our funding for purchasing drugs has been cut in half. If we have to reduce our narcotics investigators down to five agents, it's going to have a severe impact on our following of suspects and narcotics stakeouts to watch for traffic at a high traffic location," Sollie said. "It's going to have a major impact."
Agents can't go after high-level drug dealers with only $5,000 to spend for six months, he said.
"You can't go out and buy 25 pounds of cocaine or 100 pounds of marijuana," Sollie said. "Those types of investigations of major dealers have to go through the state, or DEA, or Customs. It's just a matter of funding an operation."
The Police Department, according to Lee, can't continue to participate.
"The city of Meridian cannot afford to remain in the drug task force," Lee said.
Lee said he and his officers stand ready to assist the county in any type of operation.
"We're still in partnership with the county. We want to work with the county," Lee said. "Any time that they need our help or we need their help, I want the sheriff and all of his officers to know our doors are wide open to support them, for manpower issues, for serving warrants, drug investigations, information-sharing; I'm 100 percent behind that. We have no problem supporting our sheriff."
As for fighting drug crimes in Meridian, Lee said his department has a plan.
"The Meridian Police Department has a strategy for street level drug crimes," Lee said. "We will be working narcotics in this city. Narcotics is a plague upon the people in the city and this county and this country."