Heroin crisis in Wellington? Mayor refuses to sign letter to Scott

Mayor Anne Gerwig refused to sign a letter backed by the rest of the village council to ask the governor to declare a health emergency over heroin overdose deaths.

While acknowledging the problem sweeping the county and nation, Gerwig drew the line at Wellington, saying the letter may give the wrong impression about overdoses in the village of 60,000.

READ: The Palm Beach’s Post’s special investigation into the heroin epidemic

“It’s horrible, and it does happen in Wellington. We all know that,” she said. “But associating ourselves with an opioid crisis should be handled pretty carefully.”

The four other council members signed the letter, which said the national heroin death toll is “now comparable to AIDS deaths in the 1990s.”

The letter arrived on Scott’s desk weeks after similar requests from Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay — whose district includes Wellington — and the Martin County Commission.

READ: Wellington’s letter

“I think it is just trying to bring into focus that this is a crisis,” Councilwoman Tanya Siskind said Monday at a meeting. “It’s not a particularly huge crisis here in Wellington but it just made us part of that voice.”

The letters from McKinlay and Martin County were prompted in part by reporting on the epidemic by The Palm Beach Post, which devoted a front page in November to a collage of faces of 216 people who died of heroin-related overdoses in Palm Beach County in 2015.

The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s office has said more than 500 people died of overdoses of all types in the county in 2016.

“This is a problem that is touching our community, and we cannot bury our heads in the sand,” Wellington Vice Mayor John McGovern said. “We have to be vigilant and we have to demand that our fellow elected officials up the chain of government are equally vigilant.”

READ: An epidemic hidden in shame

The number of overdose calls in Wellington increased from 68 in 2015 to 104 in 2016. Not all those calls were for opioid overdoses, but Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Michael Arena said opioids likely were the main reason for the increase.

The village responded to more calls overall, with overdose calls accounting for about 17 percent of the increase.

But Gerwig said that based on conversations she has had with local emergency response officials, the consensus has been that opioids have not reached a “crisis” level in Wellington yet.

Village Manager Paul Schofield adapted the Wellington letter from McKinlay’s, which cited larger numbers that Gerwig said give a false picture of how bad it is in Wellington.

READ: What is addiction? Why some can’t give it up, others can walk away

Even if she didn’t agree with the exact wording, Gerwig said she would have signed the letter if it had been discussed in public and the majority of the council had voted to approve the language. But council members wanted the letter quickly so they could show it to legislators last week during Palm Beach County Day in Tallahassee.

Gerwig also sits on the board of the Palm Beach County League of Cities and she said she would be much more open to signing a letter on behalf of that board.

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