The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency stands to lose at least seven of its 49 drug agents — 14 percent of the interagency task force — in the coming year because of the loss of federal stimulus money, and it’s only because of an increase in state money that the cuts aren’t much deeper.

The cuts come at a time when urban police departments cite an increase in violent crime associated with drug addiction and rural agencies struggle with prescription drug diversion — also a byproduct of addiction.

“There is not another issue in this state that affects communities and law enforcement as much as the drug issue,” said South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. He noted that the MDEA conducted a search warrant at a suspected drug house in the middle of a residential South Portland neighborhood Thursday.

“To not have (MDEA) funded to the point where we can keep it in check is not good news,” Googins said. “The fact of the matter is, for local law enforcement agencies, most departments in the state — and South Portland is no different — cannot adequately investigate the types of drug issues we’re seeing.”

Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget would spend $747,000 more on the MDEA from the state’s General Fund, which would soften the blow of federal cutbacks. Without the infusion of state cash, the drug agency would be laying off an additional 10 agents.

The state’s General Fund contributed $2.4 million to the MDEA this year and is scheduled to increase that funding to $3.2 million next year and in fiscal year 2013.

As it is, five agent positions currently funded with money designed to stimulate the economy and avoid public-sector layoffs will be eliminated, said Roy McKinney, MDEA director.

Funding also will be cut for two other positions that were part of a special congressional appropriation to fight prescription drug abuse in northern Maine.

That may not be the end of the bad news for the state’s effort to fight drug crime.

The federal Edward Byrne Memorial grants that help fund the MDEA agents and the prosecutors who litigate the cases have been steadily declining for the past several years and are slated to drop another 17 percent in the coming year.

The grant once funded the entire MDEA and was used to fund a wide array of anti-crime efforts in the state, from youth violence prevention to sex offender management.

But as the money shrank from $3 million in 2004 to $1.6 million this year, the MDEA and the prosecutors have become the priority, said Mary Lucia, senior planner with the state’s Justice Assistance Council.

As it stands now, 31 agents are funded with federal grants and 18 are funded with state dollars.

The Justice Assistance Council plans a public hearing June 23 to gather input on how the federal money should be spent, she said.

Even if the cut does not lead to more drug agent layoffs, it is likely to cut grants for local departments, which typically use the money for new technology.

The MDEA was established to pool officers from different departments to investigate drug dealing in the state, a recognition that such illicit networks don’t conform to municipal or county boundaries. Departments assign officers to MDEA and are then reimbursed by the agency so they can replace the lost manpower for strictly local policing.

“Maine is a vast state with a limited number of law enforcement resources,” McKinney said. “Those communities for the most part cannot afford to assign an officer to a task force on a full-time and long-term basis. That’s where the grant moneys were critical in being able to fund this process.”

The cuts come at a time when departments are dealing with burglaries and violent robberies directly related to powerful addictive drugs.

“I do think that over the past six months there has been a disturbing increase in crack cocaine-related violence,” said Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Meg Elam.

“I have multiple defendants who have been charged with multiple robberies done to supply their crack habit,” she said.

The grand jury Thursday indicted James Blann, 40, of Portland on a charge of seriously injuring a store clerk at the Big Apple on Park Avenue by hitting him over the head with an empty vodka bottle, then stealing $160.

Blann later turned himself in and told police he had been smoking crack cocaine for two days and needed more.

Portland Police Chief James Craig said the city has seen a decrease in the total number of violent and property crimes, but continues to face challenges with burglaries, vehicle break-ins and street robberies that are related to addictive drugs.

McKinney said the agency is grateful for the support MDEA has received in the governor’s proposed budget, which is facing a wide array of needs competing for severely limited resources.

The uncertainty of federal funding has tied a vital policing function to congressional appropriations in Washington, Googins said.

“This is one of the dilemmas when you rely on grant funding for what I consider essential services in the state,” he said. “We know it’s a balancing act when it comes to funding. This is one area that’s just never been adequately funded.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com