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Budget Cuts Force Layoffs At Operation UNITE

SOMERSET, Ky. (AP) - An eastern Kentucky task force that takes a
three-pronged approach to battling drugs is laying off employees
because of federal funding cuts.
Operation UNITE has made 2,400 drug-related arrests in the past five years and provided money for drug treatment and education. The
task force has so far laid off 10 police officers and two staffers,
though organizers say it will continue its core mission.
Karen Engle, UNITE president and CEO, said the initiative now has 23 police officers, down from 40 officers at its peak. But it remains the largest drug task force in the state, she said.
"We're not going away," Engle vowed. "We have tightened our belts and restructured the organization so that UNITE can fight the drug scourge over the long haul."
She said the organization has applied for grants and is looking at other potential money sources, including corporate sponsorships.
Republican Congressman Hal Rogers of Somerset founded UNITE in
2003. It's three-prong mission is evident in its acronym: Unlawful
Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education.
Rogers, a committee chairman when the Republicans controlled the
House of Representatives, got $8 million earmarked for UNITE each
year of its first three years and then upped that to $9.1 million in 2006-07. But the initiative got nothing for 2007 after Democrats took control of Congress and suspended earmarks while tinkering with the system.
UNITE got through 2007 with carryover money, but in the budget
President Bush signed last month, it received only about $4 million.
Rogers said he started the program in response to a series of
Lexington Herald-Leader reports that said eastern Kentucky led the
nation in the amount of painkillers prescribed per capita and that rural police staffs were shorthanded, among other issues.
Randy Poff, a sheriff's deputy in Perry County, credits the task force with helping control the region's drug problems.
"A couple of years ago, you could walk down Main Street here in
Hazard and have people ask to sell you drugs or ask to buy drugs from you," Poff said. "But you don't hear of that happening now. Drug dealers are scared that the person asking to buy is an undercover UNITE officer."
Communities will expect local police to take up the slack, but they can't, said Pike County Sheriff Charles "Fuzzy" Keesee.
"We just can't do the job that UNITE does in fighting illegal drug abuse. We don't have the money, the personnel or the time to even make a dent in this war," Keesee said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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