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Drugs epidemic taxes Portage County finances

By MATTHEW MERCHANT | RECORD-COURIER REPORTER Published: February 8, 2017 1:00 AM
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KENT -- Portage County's opioid and heroin epidemic -- and how the county's budget could be used to combat the issue -- took center stage at the Kent Rotary meeting Jan. 24.

County Commissioners Maureen Frederick, Vicki Kline and Sabrina Christian-Bennett presented their "State of the County" address.

With more than $200 million in annual funding -- and an additional $250 million in federal funds for Job and Family Services -- the commissioners oversee a vast number of employees who provide services for residents. Ohio currently leads the nation in opioid overdose deaths.

Last year, the commissioners formed the sales and use tax subcommittee after imposing a 0.25 percent sales tax. Part of the roughly $4 million expected revenue is expected to go toward treatment and rehabilitation programs.

"There's never enough revenue to satisfy the needs of everyone who comes before us," Frederick said. More than $250 million alone comes from federal government to the Portage County Job and Family Services, which services many of the programs that address the issue.

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"We have surrounded ourselves with very educated and talented individuals," Frederick said of her top directors at the county, who meet weekly.

The "perplexing" heroin epidemic has put "pressure and added expense on the county systems," she said. And while the county jail is looking to expand in the coming year, "a jail is not a treatment center."

"It effects every department. It's like a pebble in a pond, it effects everyone. And we are paying for it," said Kline, who also spoke of the sales tax committee. Its members are often torn between preventative measures and treatment options, both of which are needed but cannot all be funded, she said.

Christian-Bennett said the commissioners, as well as the entire county government, are working to implement the Lean Six Sigma principles aimed at streamlining processes and saving money. More time spent focused on what matters in the community is the responsibility of county officials, she said.

Frederick recalled a time when she explained the effects of a heroin overdose to the family of someone who died. When the person overdoses, she said, there's the emergency response, jail, probation, then rehabilitation -- and that doesn't include any children removed by social services. That constant caseload puts excess strain on the county system.

Kline said she often tells people who don't support paying for addiction treatment to imagine if a family member were in treatment and ask how they would feel.

Frederick said one of the things that made her decide on entering the local political scene was having grown up and been educated in Portage County.

"For me, I want to enhance that opportunity for everyone of the 162,000 people in this county. I want them to have it, I want to protect it, and I want to expand," she said. "Those are my priorities when things come before us."

Email: mmerchant@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4156


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