Cass drug millage request put on Aug. 3 primary ballot

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
CASSOPOLIS -- Cass County voters will be asked on the Aug. 3 primary ballot to approve a four-year proposal for half a mill dedicated to drug enforcement, prosecution, education and treatment.
It is estimated that levying 0.5 mill would generate $615,500 the first year to fund a countywide drug enforcement and prosecution team of five detectives, clerical support and an assistant prosecutor dedicated to narcotics cases.
Sheriff Joseph M. Underwood Jr. and Dowagiac Police Chief Thomas A. Atkinson made the request approved Thursday by the Board of Commissioners.
Its resolution, approved 14-1, recognizes that "there continues to be a serious drug problem in Cass County despite the efforts of law enforcement agencies and community groups to eradicate this problem."
Atkinson called the methamphetamine epidemic the worst drug problem he's seen in a 33-year career with the Sheriff's Office and, since August 1997, as police chief.
Atkinson and Underwood collaborated in 1999 to form a local drug interdiction team to concentrate efforts in and for this county.
The Cass County Drug Enforcement Team, or CCDET, replaced SWET, the South West Enforcement Team, covering a jurisdiction of more than a dozen towns, villages and cities in multiple counties.
CCDET is comprised of a Dowagiac detective, a sheriff's office detective and a deputy funded by a community policing grant.
This trio focuses its efforts on local drug trafficking problems within the city and throughout the county. CCDET provides a way to concentrate drug enforcement efforts with limited manpower by sharing information and resources between the municipal force and the sheriff's office.
At its inception, the CCDET concentrated on marijuana and crack cocaine. Drug sweeps in the city and out in the county resulted in arrests and convictions of many major street dealers. It wasn't long before methamphetamine use and associated problems it generates became evident.
In May 2000, a man suffering from the paranoia that accompanies the use of methamphetamine committed a triple murder and suicide in Newberg Township.
Larcenies of chemicals used in the manufacture of "meth," such as anhydrous ammonia, have increased steadily. Injuries have been sustained by citizens exposed to the chemical residue from production of the drug. They have even seen deaths result directly from the meth "cooking" process -- due to either overdose or exposure to the toxic chemicals used.
Problems spawned by the manufacture, use and delivery of illegal drugs are not going away, Underwood and Atkinson say. As their experience proves, they will only continue and worsen unless they can devote energy and resources to thwart this illegal activity at every turn.
Homicide, armed robbery, home invasion, breaking and entering, larceny, possession of stolen property and weapons offenses are all crimes that have occurred in Cass County as a direct result of illicit drug activity. They say a problem as pervasive and destructive as illegal drug trafficking demands the fashioning of a comprehensive approach. The CCDET partnership is a "cornerstone" that must be built upon to expand and strengthen county anti-drug efforts.
Responsibilities of the added prosecutor would include preparing and obtaining search warrants, reviewing and authorizing requested charges, handling all aspects of criminal trials (arraignment through sentencing), conducting forfeiture actions on behalf of the county and providing assistance as needed to CCDET officers.
In a joint written statement, Underwood and Atkinson state: "The past five years with CCDET, and our experience with the Michigan State Police SWET program, have proven that drug activity in our county is extensive. The 'ripple effect' of this activity results in multiple crimes, abused/neglected children, crowded court dockets and the risk of over-utilization of jail space. We need a team that is experienced and capable to specialize in these kinds of cases. A team supported with established funds that a drug enforcement millage can provide."
The lone opposing vote in the 14-1 margin to place a request before voters for half a mill (50 cents per $1,000 of equalized taxable value) for 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, Commissioner David Taylor, D-Edwardsburg, favored finding the money within the county budget.

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