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County asks about ‘hard cost’ of fighting heroin, need for more money

How much will it cost St. Charles County next year to fight a possible heroin epidemic and widespread abuse of opiate-based prescription drugs? Some county officials now say it could be close to, or more than, $1 million.

Those costs come at a time when the county’s 2017 budget is tight with less money to pay for law enforcement, prosecution and public health services.

Some St. Charles County Councilmembers are talking about asking voters for a small tax increase dedicated to paying for rising law enforcement and public health expenses, prompted in part by increased crime due to opiate and heroin abuse. That discussion came up at a St. Charles County Council work session on Nov. 28, where councilmembers and county officials went page-by-page through proposed department expenditures in the proposed 2017 budget. On Dec. 19, the council is expected to adopt that budget for the fiscal year that begins Jan. 1.

County officials say rising employee medical claims are a major contributor to a proposed $80.3 million general fund budget in 2017 that may include only four new employees and a 1 percent pay increase for more than 1,000 employees. That situation and the shifting of resources toward dealing with the impact of the heroin and prescription drug abuse worries county officials.

At the work session, the budget discussion toward the county’s efforts to combat drugs, including a new prescription drug monitoring program and an epidemiologist – proposed as a new hire in the 2017 budget at a cost of $78,000 in salary and benefits – to work with establishing the county’s new PDMP. County police and the sheriff’s department also are administering Narcan, a drug that can be injected to treat overdose victims. It is estimated that Narcan may cost the county about $120,000 next year. Police also are being deployed to catch those selling heroin and deal with crime related to drug abuse. Finally, prosecutor’s caseloads include many drug-related arrests.

“Is there an amount of money we can establish that the heroin epidemic is costing this county?” Councilmember Joe Brazil [District 2] asked. “Not the unforeseen costs, but the hard costs. Is it a million dollars?”

“I can’t say it costs us a million, I can’t say it doesn’t,” said Joann Leykam, the county’s director of administration. Leykam said county officials would have to review corrections, police, public health, along with items such as Narcan to get a better picture of actual costs.

“I think you have to go back and see what percentage of arrests, say 10 years ago, involved drugs and what percentage it is now,”  County Executive Steve Ehlmann said. “Those are police officers spending time on that problem than can’t spend time on another problem.”

“It’s dragging us down,” Brazil said. He agreed that using Narcan to save lives is worth it, but said perhaps identifying hard costs could prompt some hard discussions about providing more money to police, prosecutors and public health officials.

Ehlmann offered that Finance Director Bob Schnur probably could develop some “ballpark” numbers.

“I would tell you right now, sitting here, that it’s in excess of a million dollars,” Schnur said.

Brazil said hard costs may prompt county officials to take action. “If we’re risking the character of this county over this, we have to step up to the plate and do what we need to do,” he said.

Council Chair Joe Cronin [District 1] asked Brazil and other councilmembers to explore how to find more money. It is a fair statement that the drug problems are not going away and the county’s budget may remain tight, he said.

“The solution down the road may be to ask the voters if they would vote for a small tax dedicated to law enforcement,” Cronin said. “The key is that it has to be dedicated to law enforcement.”

The St. Louis County Council on Nov. 29 voted to place a half-cent sales tax proposal on the April 2017 ballot. Aware of those efforts, Ehlmann, at the annual Progress 64 West Awards Banquet in Chesterfield on Nov. 23, said that he would be willing to pay additional sales tax to support law enforcement there. Progress 64 West is an alliance of government officials and business leaders that promote development along the Interstate 64 corridor in both counties.

Meanwhile, Leykam and other county officials told councilmembers that the everyday cost of fighting heroin is expected to be steep. For instance, Leycam said officers are finding that more than one dose of Narcan has to be given, particularly in the last three to six months, because of the potency of the drugs taken. County Police Chief David Todd also said police gave Narcan to the same person three times on separate calls in one week. Narcan also was given to one person at the county Justice Center.

“All it does is put them in our jail to have their medical crisis,” Leycam said.

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