Steamboat Springs A lack of funding and high officer turnover rates may force a change in direction for the Greater Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team.
On Thursday, GRAMNET Task Force Commander Garrett Wiggins expressed concern that new Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall may not fund a portion of the regional drug task force for 2007-08. Although such a lack of funding won't be the demise of GRAMNET, it certainly will affect what the task force is able to accomplish in Northwest Colorado.
"I've spoken to Gary at least three times about his intentions with GRAMNET, and he has yet to take a solid stance on whether he will support GRAMNET," Wiggins said.
GRAMNET is comprised of officers from the Moffat County and Routt County sheriff's offices and the Craig and Steamboat Springs police departments. Those four law enforcement agencies also provide most of GRAMNET's funding, particularly as federal grants supporting the program have been cut in recent years. Jackson County and the Hayden Police Department make minor contributions to GRAMNET's annual budget.
Wiggins said he has sent a letter asking Wall to make a decision by Feb. 15 so the agency can move forward with a March 1 federal grant deadline.
During Wall's campaign for sheriff, he promised to research GRAMNET's funding and purpose before deciding whether to cut funding.
"I'm not going to address any of these agencies like (Routt County) Search and Rescue or GRAMNET because I haven't had a chance to examine them," Wall said last week.
Wall said "getting a handle on the whole program" is his No. 1 priority.
"I want to be thorough," he said. "I don't want to jump to any conclusions or mislead anyone with what I am doing."
A decrease in federal funding for GRAMNET could create additional burdens for the local law enforcement agencies that provide the task force with funding. The Routt County and Moffat County sheriff's offices and the Craig and Steamboat Springs police departments have been asked to contribute an additional $27,500 to GRAMNET's 2007-08 budget because of the lack of federal funding. GRAMNET's total annual budget is about $450,000.
During the past four years, grant funds have been cut from $222,000 in 2004 to $95,000 in 2007. GRAMNET was formed in 1996.
At that rate, it is inevitable that GRAMNET's parent agencies one day will have to fully fund the organization, Wiggins said.
"We're shooting to be 100 percent self-sufficient," he said. "We've been pretty lucky in receiving the Justice Assistance Grant, (but) it's getting less and less every year."
While funding certainly is a challenge, so is a lack of officers to follow up on calls and investigate leads, he said.
"Working on a drug task force is different than working for any other law enforcement agency," he said. "It takes at least one or two years to get an officer trained, and by that time, there's a cap on how long they're with us or they're ready to leave."
As of this month, there are three officers manning GRAMNET, including an officer from the Moffat County Sheriff's Office, Craig Police Department and Wiggins, a Steamboat Springs police officer. The Routt County Sheriff's Office deputy has left GRAMNET to patrol the county because the Sheriff's Office is understaffed as well.
Wiggins anticipates another officer or two to turnover in the coming months.
"We're a small task force," he said. "We get so much information about drug activity that we just can't follow up on everything.
Without Routt County funding or an officer, GRAMNET may change the way it functions in the future, he said.
"We'll continue to operate, it'll just throw a hitch in things," he said. "We'll continue to do the best we can with what we've got."
Craig Police Department Chief Walt Vanatta said he hopes Wall will stay involved in GRAMNET because of the mutual benefits the task force provides.
"In our discussions, we've encouraged (Wall) to do his research instead of just pulling out," Vanatta said. "There's great value in supporting such an organization. It takes a unified effort from all of us to combat crime in this valley."
Vanatta said being involved in GRAMNET has provided his department and community the resources needed to investigate and prosecute known drug dealers.
"On our own, none of us have the resources we need to work these kinds of cases. We just don't," he said.
He acknowledges that not everyone agrees about the importance of GRAMNET.
"I think people are largely critical because the organization is not viewed as productive," he said. "Well, that's directly related to the lack of funding and manpower issue."
Wiggins said people often think GRAMNET's sole mission is to bust 13-year-old kids smoking marijuana or skiers smoking pot on the gondola at the Steamboat Ski Area.
"We're not out hiding in bushes trying to catch people smoking pot," he said. "We're dedicated to investigating the source of drugs in our communities, not so much the abusers and users, but the people making a living selling drugs."
In 2006, GRAMNET officers arrested 74 people on felony distribution and possession charges. Forty-nine of those arrests were for distributing or possessing methamphetamine. The agency seized about $83,000 in estimated street value of drugs.
"Does GRAMNET do what we want it to? I believe so. Is it worth funding? Absolutely," Vanatta said. "Whatever happens, we'll keep it going."
Steamboat Springs Public Safety Director J.D. Hays echoed Vanatta's stance.
"Whatever happens, we'll keep GRAMNET going," he said. "It's too valuable not to."