Starr County HIDTA loses federal funding

2 years 2 months 2 days ago Sunday, June 14 2020 Jun 14, 2020 June 14, 2020 5:22 PM June 14, 2020 in News - Local

A task force dedicated to dismantling drug trafficking organizations in Starr County will lose federal funding on June 30.

Starr County officials received a letter on Friday informing them of the decision reached by the Executive Board of the South Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which oversees local HIDTA task forces.

CHANNEL FIVE NEWS obtained a copy of the letter and verified its authenticity through county and city officials.

"It really doesn't give us any insight as to why it's being done," said Starr County Judge Eloy Vera.

The letter dated June 8 states the board met in executive session on June 3. It voted to suspend all funding to the HIDTA task force in Starr County effective June 30 through Dec. 31, 2020. An amount or reason for the decision was not disclosed. 

At that time, the board will reassess the suspension.

The Starr County District Attorney's Office oversees the task force, which includes law enforcement officers from the local police departments and sheriff's office. 

As of Sunday, District Attorney Omar Escobar did not respond to phone messages or calls requesting comment.

Gocha Allen Ramirez, the incoming district attorney, sent a statement. "I have already begun the process of reaching out to local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies, with the hope that funding for HIDTA, under the direction of the 229th Judicial District Attorney's office, might be restored beginning Jan. 1, 2021," according to the press release. 

The future of the program and its officers' employment is up in the air.

"Any expenditure made after June 30, 2020, that is generally paid with HIDTA funds, will not be reimbursed to your entity. This suspension affects funding from grant years 2018, 2019, and 2020," according to the letter.

Vera said it's challenging to keep federal programs when the funding runs dry. 

"We have a policy in the county that any grants or programs that we have whenever they run out of funding or they cease to exist, then of course the county also stops the program, because we don't have it in the budget," Vera said.

Rio Grande City leaders will be meeting to discuss the future of the program this week, said city spokeswoman Ashly Custer.

The Starr County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments depend on HIDTA funding to pay officers assigned to the task force.  

Without HIDTA funding, they may be reassigned or lose their jobs. 

"Every entity is different, if they have the funding in their budget, I guess they [the officers] could go back. I don't think we do -- the county. Once an officer goes into one of those programs, that position that was funded by the county gets filled by some other officer. Again, I'm just speculating. I guess I'll find out Monday," Vera said. 

 Starr County must return HIDTA task force equipment to the regional office and stop using HIDTA logo on letterhead, vehicles, and uniforms.  

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