|By Billy Davis
and John Howell Sr.
While the future of the Panola County’s Drug Task Force is uncertain, a closer look at its operation and budget is certainly taking shape.
County Administrator David Chandler said this week he will recommend a reorganization of the four-agent task force to the Panola County Board of Supervisors in coming days.
The task force is seeking about $75,000 from the county for the new fiscal year, Chandler said, up from $41,000 budgeted for this year.
Panola County supervisors will begin budget meetings on Friday, August 25 to plan for the 2005-2006 fiscal year, which begins October 1.
According to figures provided by the Panola County Sheriff’s Department, the task force is seeking $76,572 from the county and the City of Batesville for 2005-2006. That combined figure is $152,054.
Figures also show the task force expects about $165,192, or 52 percent of its 2005-2006 budget, will come from grant funds that help pay for everything from salaries and insurance to postage and office supplies.
Chandler said, however, that such grants are "slowing down" and putting a strain on the county budget.
The loss of the $474 million federal Byrne grants has law enforcement agencies across the state scrambling for funds. Those grants are increasingly being diverted into Homeland Security, according to published reports.
Combining expected grant funds and budget requests, the task force’s requested budget is $318,337.
The drug task force is operated by a commander, Jason Chrestman, who oversees three agents and an office administrator.
Asked if he will recommend keeping the task force, Chandler said he "believes in the need" for a task force but wants it to be restructured.
"I’m not against the task force, but there’s got to be some changes made," Chandler said.
Scrutiny of the drug task force first surfaced last week when City of Batesville officials questioned the effectiveness of the task force at their August 5 budget meeting.
Alderman Bobbie Jean Pounders suggested the city wasn’t "getting a lot out of the task force anymore," and Alderman James Yelton said the city’s "getting word" that the task force is "kind of sitting on their fannies anyway."
In an interview Wednesday, interim Sheriff Ida Bryan said that over half of the cases scheduled for trial in the next term of court are drug cases based on investigations by task force members.
When Panola County Circuit Court begins next week in the Second Judicial District, 10 of 15 cases set for the first week and nine of 16 cases set for the second week are drug cases, she said.
During the August 5 budget meeting, Alderman Bill Dugger suggested postponing any action until the county sheriff’s election in November, which will allow the new sheriff a role in planning the future of the task force.
The county task force began 14 years ago as the Tate-Panola County Drug Task Force, a joint venture of both counties and the municipalities of Batesville and Senatobia.
Tate County and Senatobia eventually pulled out, leaving Panola County and the City of Batesville to solely fund the task force.
With two partners gone, the late Sheriff David Bryan and now-retired Batesville Police Chief Roger Vanlandingham oversaw the agency as a two-member control board.
The task force is now overseen by Police Chief Gerald Legge and Bryan’s widow, Ida Bryan, who is serving as interim sheriff until the special election.
According to Chandler, the task force eventually drifted into the control of the Panola County Sheriff’s Department after the departure of Tate County’s representatives.
"It’s not a county department. It’s not part of the sheriff’s department," Chandler said. "It wasn’t set up as a Panola County deal."
In a Wednesday interview, Bryan and Chief Deputy Craig Sheley said task force funding is part of the sheriff’s department budget and will be included when the department makes its budget request.
Bryan said that she has asked Sheley to present information about task force activity to the county supervisors.
"He’s the chief deputy, and I have asked him to get all of that information and present it for me," she said.
Sheley said the department will produce facts and figures that justify the task force’s mission and budget.
"It’s going to be a justification of the task force," Sheley said. "We feel like we don’t have to defend anything."
The chief deputy said that the task force has qualified for federal/state matching fund Byrne grants for 14 years.
"This is not just a block grant," Sheley said. "They evaluate you all during the year," to monitor how the the money is spent and the evidence is handled, he added.
"There have been other multi-jurisdictional task forces that have been cut in the middle of a year," Sheley said. "We have been in good standing in this for 14 years."
Figures show the task force logged 49 convictions the first six months of the current fiscal year according to sheriff’s department figures.