Blackburn knisely smith et al

From left to right, Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn, Athens City Council President Chris Knisely, Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith and Athens-Hocking-Vinton 317 Board Executive Director Earl Cecil stand outside the Athens County Courthouse on Tuesday, May 30. Photo by Conor Morris.

Athens County’s sheriff and prosecutor, as well as Athens City Council’s president and the director of the local mental health/addiction recovery board, gathered in front of the county Courthouse last Tuesday to discuss how local government cuts and other Ohio legislative decisions have impacted the area.

City Council President Chris Knisely began the presentation – which was organized by the Ohio Democratic Party – by noting that the city of Athens had its local government funds cut in half by state government between 2010 and 2018. She said the local government funding provided by the state in 2010 was about $718,000; as of 2018 it was about half that amount.

Knisely contended that funding needs to be restored to help communities like Athens keep infrastructure in good repair, fund safety services, and bring economic development to the area.

County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said that since 2011, the Ohio Legislature has on three separate occasions increased the amount of responsibilities counties have relating to housing people convicted of felonies in jail, which has meant rising costs. More recently, he added, the Ohio Senate has discussed a measure (Senate Bill 3) that would downgrade most felony drug possession crimes to misdemeanors. Blackburn said that would mean possession of a significant amount of heroin (up to 49 “balloons”) would become a misdemeanor. Blackburn called on Athens County’s state senator, Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, to oppose that bill.

There’s also ongoing discussion in the Ohio Legislature about Ohio’s next biennial budget, specifically involving a proposal to eliminate adult parole services to “over 40 counties in Ohio,” requiring counties to set up their own probation departments, Blackburn said, which would mean further costs for the county. He said he has contacted state Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, who apparently told Blackburn he opposes that addition to the state budget.

Meanwhile, Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith noted the importance of Medicaid expansion in Ohio, and said it has helped fund a local overdose response team through his and other county agencies. That team has identified 147 people who had overdoses or substance-abuse disorders since it began last year. Of those 147 people, 59 people were located by sheriff’s deputies, and 28 of those people have gotten into treatment programs upon the urging of those deputies.

“Without Medicaid expansion, it would be a lot more difficult for us to continue to try to help people with any kind of substance-abuse disorder,” Smith said.

Earl Cecil, executive director of the Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services 317 Board for Athens-Hocking-Vinton counties, agreed with Smith. He said his agency works with local law enforcement, Children Services, and Job and Family Services agencies to try to attack the problem of drug addiction.

He said people who are struggling with addiction need more than treatment services.

“They need jobs… It’s hard to get someone convicted of a felony jobs,” Cecil said. “They need safe and secure and sober housing; they need health care; they need help. Without local services (that wouldn’t be possible). I urge the General Assembly to increase local government funding and funding for addiction treatment…”

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