Flathead Beacon: Inflation, Fentanyl Top Concerns During Tester Visit with Law Enforcement Leaders  

by Denali Sagner

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester met with law enforcement officials on Friday to discuss immigration, budget concerns and the area’s burgeoning fentanyl crisis

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester joined law enforcement officials in Kalispell on Friday to discuss the economic strains on local police departments, rising concerns over fentanyl and federal immigration policy.

Leaders of local sheriff’s and police departments lamented high inflation, stagnant budgets and arduous federal grants processes that they say have made it difficult to repair outdated infrastructure and pay officers. Officials also reported higher instances of fentanyl use in the community and concerns over border security.

Gathered with the senator for a roundtable discussion at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office were Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino, Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short, Kalispell Police Chief Jordan Venizio, Columbia Falls Police Chief Clint Peters and Whitefish Police Deputy Chief Kevin Conway.

According to Heino, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department has seen a “pretty significant increase” in fentanyl use and overdose deaths, which the sheriff said “taxes a lot of resources for investigation.”

According to a 2021 report published by the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Montana increased by 167% from 2016 to 2020.

Heino applauded the work of the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force, a multi-agency cooperative that targets drug crimes across Flathead, Glacier, Lake and Lincoln counties. The Flathead and Lincoln County sheriff’s departments are currently working on a hands-on intervention that will teach parents how to identify possible signs of adolescent drug use.

However, the law enforcement officials said, more assistance is needed to address the growing threat.

Tester, who spent most of the 45-minute roundtable listening to local officials, expressed disappointment at the failure of a major bipartisan bill last month that would have implemented strict border security measures while bolstering funding for Ukraine. Despite the bill undergoing months of negotiations and garnering support from both sides of the political aisle, House Republicans declared it “dead on arrival.”

The senator also discussed the FEND Off Fentanyl Act, which would impose economic sanctions on China and other criminal organizations that manufacture the precursor chemicals that become fentanyl. Though the bill has received the support of 68 Republican and Democratic members of the Senate, Tester included, the senator said it is currently being held up in the House.

Short, the Lincoln County Sheriff, said that due to budget constraints, his office couldn’t replace its police cars this year, let alone invest in major investigation tools.