Willie Sawyers

Willie Sawyers, Publisher

Hal Rogers found himself in an unusual position at a press conference in London Monday. The congressman usually stands in front of large crowds to announce financial support for worthwhile projects in his 5th District. But on Monday, he was seeking it.

One of Rogers’ most-successful achievements, the anti-drug UNITE program, is running short of money because of cutbacks from the federal government. UNITE may have to lay off 12 investigative and support personnel if it can’t find other funding.

Rogers used his federal holiday to come to Kentucky to drum up support for a program whose success has surprised its creator. He is turning every stone and calling in any favor to see that UNITE continues its mission.

“I didn’t dream you all could do what you’re doing,” Rogers told the large gathering of UNITE workers and volunteers at the press conference Monday. “Through your determination, dedication and pride in tackling the problem head on, you’ve done incredible work. This organization has been incredible.”

Rogers had to be encouraged by the turnout of people who want to see UNITE funded at 100 percent. The gathering of state senators, judges, prosecutors, law officers, counselors and volunteers filled the London-Laurel County Tourism office.

Some of the sheriffs and police chiefs from Eastern Kentucky communities drove down in dilapidated, high-mileage cruisers. Their departments barely have enough money to keep a few officers on the road, let alone the money and manpower to curb the drug scourge in their towns. That’s why UNITE is so important to them.

It’s also important to Ronnie Cottongim, a Clay County UNITE supporter who gave an emotional speech about how drugs claimed the life of his only son. He knows personally how drugs can consume individuals and entire communities if left unchecked.

Rogers began UNITE after he read a series of newspaper articles entitled “Prescription for Pain,” which described the drug problem in Eastern Kentucky. He was able to secure about $9 million per year in special earmarks to fund the program. But in 2007, Congress did away with all federal earmarks.

UNITE had some carry-over funds but will have to lay off 12 employees unless it can come up with $450,000 to make it through the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

But unlike many federally-funded special projects, UNITE has plenty of evidence to show that it has succeeded in reducing drug use in Eastern Kentucky. With its emphasis on enforcement, in conjunction with treatment and education, UNITE has helped communities take back their streets from drug dealers.

“Out of the entire United States, I’m one of 435 in Congress, out of all the people in all regions, you were singled out as being the most effective in dealing with the drug problem,” Rogers told the crowd Monday. “Southeastern Kentucky is the only region in the state showing a decrease, so it’s working.”

Rogers was right on the mark when he said the state should help continue UNITE’s mission, now that his federal dollars have dried up. Most of UNITE’s activities are traditionally the state’s responsibility.

Fortunately, most people who live in Rogers’ district realizes the impact UNITE has made. That’s why it was easy to gather a large crowd of supporters Monday in a span of just 24 hours. That’s why it was easy for state senators Robert Stivers and Tom Jensen to announce their intention to file a bill to secure the $450,000 UNITE needs to finish out the fiscal year.

“I think this may be his (Rogers’) greatest legacy when history looks back on this time,” Jensen said.

He’s exactly correct. Through his vision and support, Rogers has helped this area tackle some of its most difficult problems.

Rogers usually is the one who’s giving. Now that he’s asking, it’s time for the state and all the communities he has helped to UNITE and support his vision.

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