Berrien County finalizing spending plans for opioid settlement funds

Published 7:00 am Friday, September 22, 2023

ST. JOSEPH – Berrien County Commissioners are getting closer to finalizing plans to spend the $8 million-plus the county is getting in opioid settlement funds. Berrien County Health Officer Guy Miller reported on the process and where county officials go from here at Thursday’s county board meeting.

        Miller noted that the county’s opioid settlement taskforce was formed in May and met throughout the summer to identify the process that would be used to distribute the funds. Members includes County Commissioners Teri Freehling and Julie Wuerfel, other county officials and area health professionals.

        “Berrien County has organized a strategy for how opioid settlement funds should be distributed with a system that considers many perspectives around substance use disorders and not just opioids,” he said.

        Miller asked commissioners to look over all the information the taskforce has put together and give their approval before the end of the year to start the Request For Proposals (RFP) process. He said the goal is to send out the RFPs in January and distribute settlement funds in March.

        He said the taskforce is also asking the county board to consider establishing a proposal review team to look over all the applications submitted as well as a long term evaluation team to make sure the settlement funds are spent properly.

        “The taskforce’s recommendation is that projects which demonstrate collaboration should be prioritized,” he said. “Projects should supplement and not supplant existing programs. There should also be meetings held to get public comment on the plans.”

        Freehling said she believes the creation of the proposal review team and the long term evaluation team is warranted. County Board Chairman McKinley Elliott agreed and said it would be his intention to appoint two county commissioners to those teams “to have eyes and ears in that process as well.”

        Miller said he thinks Berrien County is “cutting edge” in what is being planned to do. He noted that some counties have gone a different route and created full-time positions to work on the distribution of opioid settlement funds. In contrast, he said community leaders in Berrien County have volunteered their time for the effort.

        Berrien County Adminstrator Brian Dissette said that one program expected to be funded with the settlement monies has already got started. The Medically Assisted Treatment program is being piloted this year at the Berrien County Jail to help those addicted to opioids and other illegal drugs.

        “We had the first program kick off yesterday with the start of the MAT program in the jail,” Dissette said. “It’s a huge step to provide services to inmates when they’re in jail and as they leave jail. We are putting dollars into the community and potentially saving lives.”

        Dissette noted that the opioid settlement funds from lawsuits with national drug store chains and pharmaceutical companies will be distributed over 18 years and some initial payments have already come in.

        Also Thursday, commissioners heard from Community Development Director Dan Fette on the Berrien County Land Bank’s intention to apply for future home owner repair grants from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. He said the county board will be asked to approve that plan in coming weeks as required by the state.

        Fette said MSHDA is reinstating the program which they discontinued in 2015. Since then, the county has partnered with the federal Home Loan Bank program to do similar projects. He described the home owner repair program as “very robust”, doing over $225,000 worth of work this year alone.

        County commissioners approved the transfer of a section of Napier Avenue from state to county control. That section is two miles long and is between the I-94 and U.S. 31 exits.

        Commissioners are still debating whether that section of Napier should be put on a “road diet” and go from five to three lanes. Dissette said stakeholders such as Lake Michigan College and businesses will be consulted and that the full board will be briefed before a decision is made.

        Elliott noted that the county board should consider all possibilities before making a decision. He pointed out that the county has considered moving more county facilities to Napier Avenue and that the area is prime for commercial development. “If we take out traffic lanes and then have to put them back in, it will be on us,” he said.