One day after Florida Governor Rick Scott did not mention the opioid crisis during his State of the State address, a contingent of 250 Palm Beach County officials pressed legislators hard Wednesday for help to combat a problem that has devastated families and strained first responders.
During a meeting with state Senate President Joe Negron — one of 50 meetings county officials had with cabinet members and legislators on the final day of the two-day lobbying fest known as Palm Beach County Days — Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein laid out the scope of the problem in stark terms: 1,600 overdoses in his city alone last year, addicts leaving unregulated sober homes with their demons in tow.
“We are being crushed,” Glickstein said. “We are losing businesses. We are losing tax revenue. These people are ending up homeless, penniless. We need help. We need the cavalry, and we need it now.”
County Administrator Verdenia Baker told Negron the problem has many corresponding impacts.
Without enough regulated treatment options, addicts have turned to unregulated sober homes, some of which are operated by people more interested in making money than helping patients. When addicts leave sober homes without proper treatment, they often add to the county’s homeless population, which adds urgency to the county’s already desperate scarcity of affordable housing.
“We are facing a crisis in affordable housing in Palm Beach County,” Baker said.
Negron nodded his understanding.
Earlier, county officials laid out the problem for out-going Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, explaining that first responders are beginning to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and leaving their job after seeing so many opioid- and heroin-related deaths.
“I need you to let me know how I can help with the opioid issue,” Atwater said. “I know it’s a real issue. I cannot believe how frequently I’m reading about this. It still feels as if it’s happening somewhere else and not here.”
County officials asked legislators to support bills that could make a dent the problem.
Two bills — SB 150 and HB 477 — would increase penalties for the possession and sale of opioids and synthetic opioid compounds to the list of drugs where possession or sale draw stiff criminal penalties.
Another bill, HB 3115, would establish a prescription drug disposal program in Palm Beach County.
Scott did not mention the opioid crisis during the State of the State Tuesday, but his budget does include $4 million in additional funding for the Florida Violent Crime and Drug Control Council. Half of that money is to go to local law enforcement agencies investigating cases of opioid abuse.
A fact sheet compiled by the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, whose members joined elected officials in meetings with legislators, noted that legislation to address unregulated sober homes has not been filed.
“However, conversations have begun at the committee level regarding increased regulation,” the fact sheet states.
Also on the mind of county officials Wednesday was the fate of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida was
Breaking from Scott and the Senate, Republicans in the House are determined to scrap those agencies, which they describe as bastions of government waste and corporate welfare. But Palm Beach County officials back both agencies, seeing them as important partners in their effort to bring companies and tourists to the county.
Atwater, leaving after this session to become chief financial officer at Florida Atlantic University, told county officials there is not broad support for the elimination of both agencies. But that doesn’t mean it will be a smooth ride for them.
“The House might not fund Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida,” said Atwater, a former Senate president. “The Senate wouldn’t accept elimination, nor would the governor. It’s going to be a funding question.”
County officials made their case on a host of other issues, including their perennial request for water and road projects in the Glades and a push for legislators to resist Scott’s plan to redirect money set aside for affordable housing to other policy areas.
Atwater said the county’s pitch is helped by unity, which he said was illustrated by the passage last year of an increase in the sales tax rate. County officials touted that sales tax rate increase from 6 percent to 7 percent as the best way to address a backlog of repairs to schools, roads, parks, bridges and county-owned buildings.
That voters agreed with the argument for passage of that tax increase will demonstrate to legislators that county officials aren’t asking them to make hard choices while avoiding some themselves, Atwater said.
“That is a local community taking ownership, coming together,” he said. “I hope you’ll be telling that story.”
WHAT THE POST REPORTED
The drug treatment industry, Palm Beach County’s fourth-largest, is beset by fraud, drawing federal and state probes, and has contributed to a rising death toll, including 216 people in 2015 from heroin-related overdoses. The Post explored the lives of everyone who died here that year. To see their stories and more, go to myPalmBeachPost.com/generationheroin/