Questions emerge concerning county’s needle-exchange program

MONTESANO — A county-funded needle-exchange program may be in jeopardy, depending on how the county’s budget process goes.

On Monday, County Commissioner Wes Cormier put a hold on a spending proposal by Public Health Director Joan Brewster and recommended by the county’s Health and Human Services Advisory Board to utilize sales tax money geared specifically for mental health programs and substance abuse programs.

Cormier specifically says he has a fundamental problem with spending county money to provide needles to drug users, questioning the public benefit. It’s a stance he’s held since he was a candidate running for office last year.

Cormier also wants to take an extra look at the full use of the county’s dedicated sales tax dollars for mental health and substance abuse programs to ensure each dollar is spent wisely.

On Aug. 20, the Health and Human Services Advisory Board met to consider proposals on how to spend the sales tax dollars. Among recommended use of the funding — $566,000 to continue a prosecutor diversion program with hopes of putting first-time drug offenders in treatment, instead of jail; jail medications for mentally ill inmates and the syringe exchange program.

Another $806,300 in new programs were also proposed to increase detoxification services, fund more youth programs, fund a half-time corrections position in the county jail, provide psychiatry support by phone and medication assisted treatment.

Cormier noted that Brewster had requested approval of the funding now, instead of waiting to go through the full budget process this fall.

“I wasn’t comfortable with that,” he said, noting specifically he has a fundamental problem with $117,400 spent out of the sales tax for the needle exchange program.

“We need to take a look at each item requested, not approve it all at once,” Cormier said. More than 450,000 needles are typically exchanged from more than 2,000 people in year in Grays Harbor County, according to Grays Harbor Public Health numbers from 2011. Besides keeping contaminated needles out of the environment, Brewster notes the program also provides access for referral for addiction treatment.

Commissioner Frank Gordon says he’s worried if the program isn’t funded then, “we’ll be finding drug needles everywhere.”

“Not just drug addicts are using the program,” Gordon said. “It’s being used by those with diabetes and people who are just low-income and can’t afford new needles for insulin.”

Gordon said he’s hoping to organize a workshop on the issue in the coming weeks.

In 2011, the state removed funding for the needle-exchange program, but the county chose to use the sales tax dollars to continue it. Then-County Commissioners Mike Wilson and Terry Willis went along with the request, and so did County Commissioner Herb Welch, but he did so with great reluctance at the time.

“I’m still hesitant to fund the program,” Welch said on Tuesday. “I went along with it, but I just don’t know. Still, it seems like before they had that program there were lots more needles being picked up and found here and there. But it would only take one needle trying to clean up a park and somebody stabbed with a needle that had an HIV bug in it to give us a liability issue.”

Commissioner Gordon says he’s seeking public input on the issue of the needle exchange program as well as other ways the county should be spending its mental health/substance abuse sales tax dollars.

“I really think the public needs to chime in on this one and tell us what they want,” Gordon said.

Those, who wish to comment can do so at the public comment period during the regular meeting, 2 p.m., Monday, Sept. 23 or by emailing or calling the commissioners at 1-800-230-1638.