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COMBAT Anti-Drug Tax Up For Renewal Tuesday

Street Crimes Unit Sergeant Chip Huth outside a raid location. Photo by Sylvia Maria Gross / KCUR.


Kansas City, MO – It's been 20 years since Jackson County residents first passed the Community Based Anti-Drug Tax to fund drug enforcement, treatment and prevention. The sales tax was an unusual response to the crack epidemic and high homicide rate of the late 1980s. Since that time, drug use and violent crime have decreased and come back up again, leaving some voters wondering if Combat has made a difference. The quarter-cent sales tax is up for a renewal in a special election on Tuesday.

The COMBAT tax generates about $20 million a year. A little more than half of that money helps pay for local narcotics enforcement.

On a rainy morning, seven Kansas City tactical officers are in a black van, pulling up to a suspected drug house near East 33rd street.

They ram open the door and swarm the house and yard. Two women, a man, and a teenage girl come out. The man's wanted on an outstanding warrant. While the officers search for drugs and weapons, Sergeant Chip Huth says that the Street Crime Unit carries out more than 400 raids like this each year. And he says it makes a difference.

HUTH: If you look around here, drugs have destroyed an entire culture in our city. But if we shut down this house, or the house next to it, we've made life a little bit better for the folks on this block.

COMBAT pays for 24 officers' salaries in this unit, and about 25 more in Eastern Jackson County. It also pays for two entire floors of the county jail, and 1/3 of the positions in the prosecutor's office.

But what makes the program unique, according to County Prosecutor Jim Kanatzer, is that the rest of the funds pay for drug treatment and community prevention programs.

KANATZER: Crime is not a problem we are going to jail away. Jail and incarceration is going to be part of the solution, but it's never going to be the solution.

On the 10th floor of the Jackson County Courthouse, 27 people are graduating from Drug Court, a COMBAT program which allows non-violent offenders to avoid prosecution if they enter a court-monitored drug treatment, mental health and job training program. Gloria Nepote of the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence is the guest speaker.

NEPOTE: It's not about bad people trying to get good, it's about sick people needing to get well.

As family members of the graduates applaud, Amanda Merrill stands up to receive her certificate. She's a young mother, who was addicted to meth. She's been drug-free now for 198 days, and she credits the Drug Court staff.

MERRILL: Judge Fry gave me lots of chances, told me like it was, called me out on stuff. I have a sponsor that calls me out on stuff, and I have a counselor who told me I was worth it.

94% of the people who complete Drug Court have no further drug crimes or felonies, and treatment costs less than jail time. That's compared to 81% who complete the typical probation.

But overall, is COMBAT reducing drug use in Jackson County? Bob Gough of the Jackson County Taxpayers Association thinks the answer is no.

GOUGH: You would think it would be very hard to find drug dealers and drug users in Jackson County.

Gough thinks that after 20 years, COMBAT should be able to prove it's had a big impact on drug use in the area. But County officials say it's hard to prove a negative: all the people who aren't using or dealing narcotics because of COMBAT. Although the crack epidemic subsided in the 1990s, County Executive Mike Sanders says that because of the sales tax, law enforcement was equipped when Eastern Jackson County was named the meth capital of the world. He remembers prosecuting a man for running a meth lab near the county line.

SANDERS: The defendant specifically said, I really messed up here. I thought I was in Lafayette County. They thought they were across the Jackson County border. The reality is what the defendants knew at that point was COMBAT has been so successful through the [Eastern County] drug task force - 20 detectives at a particular time out looking, searching for those meth labs in Jackson County. Defendants didn't want to be in Jackson County anymore.

Anecdotes aside, there's not much data comparing COMBAT's results in Jackson County to similar places around the country. The sales tax funds more than 80 programs in different agencies and non-profits throughout the county. Some are national models like the Drug Court; others haven't yet been thoroughly evaluated.

Critics point to DARE, which sends police officers into classrooms to teach drug prevention. National studies have shown that students who participate are no less likely to use drugs later in life than those who don't. But COMBAT director Stacey Daniels-Young says local research shown some positive impacts.

DANIELS-YOUNG: Just opening up the communication in the family, and getting parents to think about, "Should I be smoking, should I be drinking around my kids, am I setting a good role model?"

Daniels-Young just took over as director six months ago. She's a research psychologist, and helped review COMBAT two years ago. The report concluded that the program needed some explicit, measurable objectives.

DANIELS-YOUNG: We want to measure ourselves against goals. If you don't know what the question is, it's kind of hard to get the answer of, have you been successful.

There's some who think the "war on drugs" will never be successful, like former councilman Richard Tolbert, a frequent critic of local taxes.

TOLBERT: The war on drugs is doing more harm to the community, than the drugs are doing. These problems have complex roots, growing out of poverty, growing out of alienation for the affluent kids.

Tolbert says most other places manage to pay for law enforcement and drug treatment programs without a special, temporary tax. But in Jackson County, Combat funds have become an integral part of the police and prosecutor's budgets, let alone those of dozens of non-profits. So if voters reject the COMBAT anti-drug tax on Tuesday, those agencies will be scrambling to find new funding, all in a weak economy.

This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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