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Citing funding shortage, Lancaster County Drug Task Force sends 4 officers back to municipal departments

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Drug Task Force

All 185 pounds of marijuana, seized Dec. 14, 2017, from a Landisville "stash house," is displayed in a photo provided by the Lancaster County District Attorney's office.

Even at 2 a.m., Chief John Michener’s link to a countywide network of crime intelligence was only a phone call away.

Michener, chief of Pequea Township Police Department, had an officer assigned to the Lancaster County Drug Task Force since January 2017.

But a few weeks ago, Michener learned that the officer and three others from separate police forces were being reassigned to their original departments due to a lack of funding for the task force, he said.

Nathaniel McCain Drug Stash

“That’s invaluable,” he said of having a direct line to an officer on the countywide force. “And we lost that.”

The Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office, which runs the task force, also reassigned officers from Northwest Regional, Ephrata and West Hempfield Township police departments. Eight municipal officers and three county detectives remain on the drug task force.

The decision of which officers to send back, according to district attorney’s office spokesman Brett Hambright, was not based on discipline or performance but rather a lack of financial support from their sending municipalities.

All municipalities, even those sending officers, are asked to contribute $1 per capita per year based on rates most recently adjusted for 2013.

The district attorney’s office can only use municipal contributions to reimburse officer salaries, according to Hambright. The municipalities pay for their officers’ benefits for the first two years. Starting the third year, the district attorney’s office reimburses benefits up to $10,000. Other sources of funding cover operational costs (see related story).

A few municipal leaders connected with the departments who had contribution shortages questioned why the cost of benefits is not considered a sufficient contribution.

At least one municipality intentionally cut back its contribution this year out of concern for the sustainability of the task force.

Impact on departments

Pequea Township can’t afford to pay the salary of the drug task force officer being sent back to its police force, so it has to lay off another less senior officer, according to township supervisor Don Purdum.

Pequea Township is $6,908 short in its drug task force contribution.

“We were paying his benefits all last year and most of this year,” Purdum said. “It's not like we weren’t contributing something.”

Purdum said the district attorney’s office request for municipal contributions on top of paying an officer’s benefits is not an unreasonable request in a “healthy, financially stable township.”

But Pequea Township, he noted, is going through police budget issues of its own. The township is currently evaluating whether the expense of having its own force is worthwhile.

Northwest Regional Police Department, which covers Mount Joy and West Donegal townships, isn’t removing any officers to make room for its returning task force officer, according to Chief Mark Mayberry.

Ephrata and West Hempfield police departments are not sure what they will do, according to officials.

West Hempfield Township

At the end of 2018, West Hempfield Township decided to cut its funding in half for 2019, from about $16,000 to $8,000, according to township manger Andrew Stern. Stern sent a letter to the district attorney’s office saying they were halving their donation due to concerns about how the drug task force was being funded, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by LNP. Stern suggested county revenues should fund the force.

Stern said the township hoped the letter would spark a discussion. But he did not hear anything from the district attorney’s office until he learned their officer was being sent back.

He said he “would like to think” that the move was not retaliatory for the funding cut.

MT drug bust

The task force seized three pounds of heroin and two pounds of pure fentanyl -- perhaps the largest fentanyl seizures in the county.

“If they’re willing to jeopardize the drug task force because we reduced their funding by $8,000, that would be sad,” Stern said.

In a phone interview, Stern repeatedly said he supports the drug task force but questions the funding model.

“Their funding was based on hopes that money would come. You can’t fund an agency that away. They had to know they were going to run out of money,” Stern said.

Stern also said the township wants more accountability of where the money is going.

“We are hoping they will figure this mess out and get back on track,” Stern said.

Ephrata police

Ephrata Police Department covers Adamstown and Ephrata boroughs and Ephrata and West Cocalico townships. West Cocalico has given about $7,000 annually to the task force, and Adamstown has kicked in $2,658 more than its requested donation since 2013.

Ephrata Borough had given its per-capita amount of $13,394 through 2018 and has budgeted the same contribution for 2019, according to manager Robert Thompson.

Ephrata Township is $47,000 short from 2013-19, according to figures from the district attorney’s office.

Manager Steve Sawyer said the township pays toward the benefits for the Ephrata officer since he joined the task force in 2017. They paid $9,300 in 2017, close to $15,000 in 2018 and budgeted $13,200 for 2019 toward the officer’s benefits, he said.

“Our costs the last 2½ years was more than a dollar per capita,” he said. That’s why the township hasn’t paid the municipal contribution to the county, he said. Now that the officer has returned, he said he expects the township board to return to the per-capita amount.

Northwest Regional police

Northwest Regional Police Department is run by a commission made up of representatives from Mount Joy and West Donegal townships.

West Donegal Township is about $22,000 short in contributions due to not contributing or partially contributing from 2013 to 2016.

Northwest Regional police logo

Manager John Yoder said that’s because the Northwest Regional police used to do drug investigations with state police and other law enforcement in adjacent Dauphin County.

A few years ago, the police commission decided to provide an officer to the drug task force and began contributing annually, Yoder said.

“It’s funny to me. It’s a contribution, not a contractual amount,” Yoder said. “There was never a direct message (from the district attorney’s office), that I’m aware of, to West Donegal saying, ‘You’re way behind. Could you help us?’”

Yoder said he did get a general appeal for more funding in a November letter from Stedman sent to all municipalities.

Mount Joy Township did not give a per-capita contribution of $9,873 in 2013 but has given that amount consistently since. Manager Justin Evans has been manager for about three years and said he did not know why there was a lapse in 2013.

The township supervisors have been “unquestionably supportive” of contributing to the task force over the past few years, Evans said.