October 29, 2009 08:00 AM
On November 3, Jackson County voters will be asked to renew a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the Community Backed Anti-Drug Tax (COMBAT).  This tax raises $20 million each year to, according to their website, "arrest, prosecute and jail people guilty of drug-related offenses. The money also is used for prevention of drug crimes, educating children about the dangers of drugs, rehabilitation of offenders and court processing of cases."

Certainly no one is opposed to such basic police activities, and those basic police activities would not end if the tax was voted down.  Quite the contrary, a defeat of the COMBAT tax in November would lead to greater oversight and improvements within the COMBAT program.

The single most important thing that voters must know is that the tax is already extended through March 2011, 17 months after the vote next week.  Anyone who follows regional politics knows that if the tax fails to get approved, County politicians will just put it on the ballot again.  (In fact, the county unnecessarily spent $800,000 to put it on the ballot this early.  So much for budgets being tight!)  Therefore, the November 3 vote allows voters to register a no confidence vote in county government without impacting a single program.  Furthermore, a 'no' vote would encourage administrators to tighten the programs mission and improve oversight.

COMBAT has been in place for 20 years.  It is very reasonable for voters to ask how they have benefited.  While police, judges and prosecutors are quick to point to criminal convictions and treatment programs, hundred of other municipalities across America offer these same programs without such a tax.  While supporters argue that the tax is a necessity for funding anti-drug programs, the results of COMBAT are open to debate.  Kansas City Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah has written much about the tax that is worth reading.  First, he points out that, "Almost no other county in the nation has a special drug tax--and yet communities across the country close drug houses, hire police officers to chase drug dealers and fund drug courts."  Why is such a tax necessary in Jackson County?  On October 8 he wrote a follow-up column titled, "Drug tax supporters are tripping on the numbers," asserting that even the supporters are hard pressed to demonstrate results.  (A copy of that column appears here.)

Supporters of the tax are quick to point to the funding it provides to well-known programs such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE).  But the success of that program has been so thoroughly debunked--it is only slightly more successful than doing exactly nothing to prevent drug abuse--that even COMBAT's director concedes the point.

The COMBAT tax is certainly no stranger to scandal.  In 2004 the COMBAT tax was the subject of a grand jury investigation when, according to The Star, it "had become the subject of bickering between county political factions. Allegations included missing financial records and illegal transfers of COMBAT funds to other spending."  As a result, County Executive Mike Sanders appointed new leadership and is working to update the mission and goals of the program.  But that task won't be complete until 2010, well after voters are being asked to approve the tax renewal.  The Star, which supports the renewal, opines, "Voters should have been told prior to the election, not after, whether major changes will be made."

Opponents of the tax refer to it as another political slush fund.  Certainly the fund's past offers no comfort that this is not true, but a look at the campaign's political funding suggests this is just another boondoggle.  Again, according The Star, "several contributions reported by the Citizens for Crime Reduction Committee come from COMBAT-funded agencies or individuals connected to them, including the Kansas City Community Center, Truman Medical Center and Arts Tech.  The campaign also has some large donations from labor and the Jackson County Democratic Committee."

COMBAT funds go to a number of agencies and provide a number of services to citizens.  In fact, it is alleged that funding even goes to organizations that provide services to illegal aliens through prevention and treatment programs such as the Guadalupe Centers and Mattie Rhodes Center.

If the November 3 ballot is approved by voters, expect the money to be divided up into even more agencies as this year--for the first time--the ballot language includes mention of violent crime, not just drug crime.  If the numbers on COMBAT's effectiveness on drug crime is sketchy now, expect it to be even more so after it includes more and different crimes.
Jackson County voters can always count on county officials to explain the need for more and greater funding.  But voters ought to look not at how tax dollars are being spent, but how effective the programs are at achieving goals.  COMBAT has not made the case, even to the satisfaction of its supporters.  Furthermore, given that the County has spent $800,000 to hold a special election so early before the current tax is due to expire, voters have a rare opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the program and its administration by voting no, without actually endangering the program.  Voting to support this program before it issues a report on it's mission and goals is more than unwise, it is an act of democratic malpractice.

Patrick Tuohey is president of Market and Communications Research Inc., a public opinion and communication research firm he founded in 1999.  He and his wife Michelle live in Kansas City, Missouri with their three daughters.

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A defeat of the COMBAT tax in November would lead to greater oversight and improvements within the COMBAT program.

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