Jackson County officials say continuation of the Combat sales tax is essential to try to limit the community’s drug problem and get violent offenders off the streets. Some of those on the front lines of that effort, from law enforcement to substance-abuse treatment experts, say they strongly agree.
The $22-million-a-year tax funds a wide range of programs. Sheriff Mike Sharp put it this way.
“We fight drugs,” he said. “We fight violent crime. But mostly we help people who need help, with this Combat tax.”
Voters on Nov. 8 will see Jackson County Question 1, a nine-year renewal of the one-quarter cent sales tax they first approved in 1989 and have reauthorized three times since. COMBAT is a acronym for Community Backed Anti-Drug Tax, though officials have – with the voters’ blessing – shifted the emphasis to a broader anti-violence program in recent years.
The tax has been easily renewed each time it’s gone to the voters, but officials are taking no chances and are making their case.
“We know how important Combat is to the community,” said County Executive Frank White Jr.
Combat Director Stacey Daniels-Young said the program has three pillars: criminal justice, prevention and treatment.
The funding goes to dozens of groups, including local police departments. For instance, the Independence Police Department has one and a half officers assigned to deal with mental health issues.
“It’s helping the person,” Daniels-Young said. “It’s helping neighbors, It’s helping the family.”
The division of Combat’s $22 million illustrates the extent to which the tax supports catching, prosecuting and punishing criminals as well as how it pays to steer people away from drugs and violence.
The money is divided 10 ways: 15 percent for treatment; 15 percent for the county’s Department of Corrections; 12 percent for Circuit Court; 10 percent to match grants; 9.5 percent for the prosecutor’s office; 9.5 percent for the Jackson County Drug Task Force, which operates in Eastern Jackson County; 9.5 percent for Kansas City police; 7.5 percent for prevention programs; 6 percent for Drug Court; and 6 percent for the DARE program in the schools.
In the prosecutor’s office, Combat pays for about half of the caseload, said Dan Nelson, chief deputy prosecutor.
“This revenue is essential to our operations,” he said.
The community still has a significant drug problem – mostly methamphetamine but also heroin, marijuana, opioids and cocaine – said Dan Cummings, who runs the Jackson County Drug Task Force.
“We triage. There is so much,” Cummings said.
In 2015, the task force got $1.93 million in Combat funding. The group is made up of officers from area police departments, and those departments are reimbursed for the cost of those officers. Last year the task force seized 112.6 pounds of methamphetamine – at a street value of $6.1 million – far more than all other drugs combined.
What has changed is that meth labs aren’t the local problem. The task force hasn’t busted one in the last three years, though Missouri overall remains one of the top meth-producing states.
“We forced the meth labs out, but there’s still demand,” Cummings said.
Drugs from Mexico – specifically meth, marijuana and cocaine mostly from the Sinaloa cartel – has taken over the market.
“They are a business,” Cummings said. “They are a money-making business.”
Cummings points to successes, including a huge heroin bust last year that led to federal charges and got several people off the streets.
“We kind of avoided that big train wreck with heroin in Eastern Jackson County,” he said.
Combat, which means steady funding, is essential so the task force can work big cases and maintain an ongoing relationship with federal agencies and the U.S. attorney’s office, Cummings said. That relationship makes it easier to develop more federal cases – the task force had 122 last year – which tend to bring harsher penalties, he said.
“It it wasn’t for Combat, that wouldn’t happen,” he said.
Combat also funds such efforts as NOVA, or the No Violence Alliance, a program to target the most dangerous offenders and get them away from crime by connecting them with work and community services. Although seen as a Kansas City effort, White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, put it differently.
“It’s not about geography. … It’s about people,” he said.
Nelson, from the prosecutor’s office, agreed.
“The violent actors operating in Kansas City are operating in Independence,” he said.
Prevention and treatment
Officials also try to head off problems before they become patterns. Combat pays for things such as the well-known D.A.R.E. program in schools, and it pays about 70 percent of the cost of Youth Court in Independence.
“If you don’t have a youth court, you have offenses that family court can’t handle,” said Judge Susan Watkins.
There’s a consequence for the Youth Court offender who messes up again, and Watkins said that's why recidivism – reoffending – is lower for those who go through it.
“We’re trying to prevent them from becoming (repeat) offenders,” she said.
She added, “If I lose Combat funding, the youth in Independence would have a negative impact in a big way. A really big way.”
Keith Querry of Independence, who sits on the Jackson County Drug Commission, said prevention is hard to measure but he said the tax is working as intended.
“In my opinion, the money is being spent for what it’s stated for,” he said.
And what happens to prevention and other programs if Combat goes away?
“We’re out of business,” he said.
Jenny Duncan, program director at the Comprehensive Mental Health Services George Norman Jr. Recovery Center in Independence, said her office’s caseload of people needing treatment for substance abuse is substantial. CMHS is one of about three dozen groups getting Combat money this year for prevention or treatment programs.
“Combat’s a huge support for us,” she said.
About half of the clients come in on their own, and about half are sent by a court. She said their programs are rigorous.
“We hold them accountable,” she said. “We don’t listen to excuses.”
The facility has 26 in-patient beds and has more than 200 outpatients. Clinical Supervisor Ken Vick said they could double that capacity and fill it immediately.
Duncan and Vick said CMHS takes a holistic approach and note that very few clients come in with just one major issue in their lives.
“So we don’t just treat the addiction,” Duncan said.
Without such programs and other efforts funded by Combat, Vick said, “Jackson County would be in trouble.”