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A Raid-to-Riches Tale of a Small Town With Too Much Money From a Drug Bust

THE item is listed on the town council agenda as old business: ``Establish Committee RE Police/Fire House complex locations.''

Ever since the second-smallest town (pop. 3,339) of the smallest state found out it was getting United States Treasury checks for nearly $4 million that had to be used for police enforcement, the town has been debating where to put the new $1 million police and fire station.

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``It has torn the place apart pretty badly,'' says council member Jack Silvia, standing outside town hall, where the council met last Thursday. ``As soon as I heard that we were getting that money, I thought this could be the worst thing that's ever happened to Little Compton.''

The money Mr. Silvia is talking about is the town's share of $27 million seized from a convicted hashish smuggler, Howard Datz, who had deposited the money in Swiss banks. Under federal laws, all Mr. Datz's assets could be seized and distributed to various law enforcement agencies. Little Compton became involved through another drug dealer it had arrested. That dealer - who forfeited his house, speedboat, and four-wheel-drive vehicle to the town - testified against Datz. Once the federal checks started arriving in the mail, Police Chief Egbert Hawes Jr. had to find ways to start spending the money.

He bought 9 mm guns, bulletproof vests, body heat-sensing equipment to locate lurking criminals, and computers to track them. He leased a sleek black Camaro for himself and a Pontiac Firebird for Ron Coffey, the lieutenant who played a major role in the investigation. Chief Hawes funded Lieutenant Coffey's salary for the next 10 years, including benefits and retirement - a $720,000 item.

And, he still had plenty of money left.

So, after a hurricane ripped through Rhode Island, he bought the town a wood chipper, reasoning that the chips could be used on the shooting range and get the downed trees off the streets. He purchased a computer system for the town treasurer since the town keeps track of the police budget. He paid for the Fourth of July fireworks.

The way the chief saw it, the guidelines on spending the money were not very clear. Once the rules were clarified, the US Justice Department decided to deduct $83,000 from Little Compton's next check - reducing the total of that check to $1,977,663.37.

That is a lot of money to spend in a quiet town that in 1993 had no murders, rapes, or robberies. ``You might just say we are doing our job,'' Hawes says. And this year, he says, the police made an arrest of some armed robbers (the crime took place elsewhere) and felt comfortable doing their job because they had the proper equipment.

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Little Compton asked the Justice Department for permission, and got it, to use the funds for a joint fire/police building. justice officials agreed and changed the policy so other small towns getting a windfall could use the money for nonpolice activities as well.

Once the Feds relented, the town was faced with the decision of finding a location for the building. In November 1992, in a nonbinding referendum, the voters agreed to a site called the Peckham lot, a open three-acre area now used for recreation. An alternative location, adjacent to the current firehouse and police station, was proposed later.

People here want to maintain the town's ambience and open spaces. Around the town are estates, many stretching down to the wide Sakonnet River. One of the reasons some townspeople are opposed to using the open Peckham site is that ``people don't want their approach to the town commons spoiled by a not-too-attractive police/fire complex,'' says Edward Sanderson, executive director of the Rhode Island Preservation Commission in Providence. The commission, a state agency, has a say only on the area around the commons close to the police station.

Little Compton is proud that its policies are decided at open meetings. At this council meeting, the town is trying to come up with a committee to decide how Little Compton should proceed with the complex. Unfortunately, the council is unable to agree on committee members, so the decision is put off to the next meeting in July. How long will it take to reach a decision? ``Ten years,'' quips Jane Cabot, council president. But don't laugh. Little Compton will get more drug money - its share of 45 other properties seized from members of the same drug ring. But Hawes says, ``Little Compton doesn't need any more money.''

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