|By Tom Marshall
Senior Advocate writer
A countywide syringe exchange program is essentially dead for now after the Montgomery County Fiscal Court unanimously voted it down Tuesday.
Commissioner Billy Ray Fawns made a motion to vote on the matter and fellow commissioners Melody Townsend and Jack “Rackle” Adams joined him in voting no. Judge-Executive Wally Johnson added a no vote to make it 4-0.
The Mt. Sterling City Council and the Montgomery County Board of Health previously voted to approve the plan, which has also been referred to by the board as a harm reduction plan.
All three entities must approve for it to go into action, however.
Townsend was the first commissioner to come out publicly against the plan when she posted a lengthy social media post Monday explaining her reasons for voting no.
She had previously conducted a social media poll, which found the majority of the public against the plan.
Townsend noted that she had also attended a public health public information forum and researched the issue independently.
“During my campaign and after being elected, my pledge was and still is to be a trusted voice for those I represent—regardless of my personal views,” she said in the social media post. “Some government officials are elected and then immediately attempt to push their own agenda discounting their constituents voices as ‘uninformed.’ I do not agree with that methodology, nor do I have my own personal agenda for serving.
“My goal was and still is to serve my community to the best of my ability and to represent the interests of our citizens—to be their voice,” she added. “The majority has spoken on this issue and they disapprove of this program for a variety of reasons. To honor the pledge I made, I will be voting no on the harm reduction program.”
In her post, Townsend acknowledges the board of health and other local officials for bringing this program forward for a vote. She said this latest vote should not reflect on them negatively.
“They are doing their job by continuously seeking measures to protect the health and welfare of the citizens of Montgomery County,” Townsend said. “I cannot find any fault with that mission and I sincerely appreciate their tireless efforts.”
Fawns said he had a fundamental core issue with supporting the distribution of needles for drug use.
He said he was also disturbed recently when he was approached by an elderly woman who asked if she could get new insulin needles at the exchange and had to tell her no.
The needles are not meant for diabetics.
Fawns, who is also a member of the board of health, said there were also logistical issues such as the type of syringes and the longterm availability of grants that have yet to be resolved.
Like Townsend, Fawns also credited the health dept. for bringing the issue to light and said he might change his vote at some point if a crisis were to occur.
Johnson, also a member of the board of health, said he voted no because the majority of the public does not support a needle exchange and believes it enables drug users.
Adams said he was concerned about the increase in needles that could be out in the public and the lack of true accountability on the part of drug users.
He said he could understand why the board of health wants the exchange, but claims there is no current crisis to warrant one.
“Once we do this there’s no turning back,” Adams said.
No one from the health dept. was present for the meeting.
The Advocate left a message for public health director Allison Napier seeking comment, but it had not been returned as of press time.
Napier has been on the job about a month.
The recent effort to get the exchange passed was led by former health director Jan Chamness. Napier has spoken in favor of an exchange as well.
In addition to a syringe exchange, the program would also have provided participants with information about treatment opportunities. Health officials say people are five times more likely to seek treatment if they participate in a program and contend that harm reduction/syringe exchange programs are critical to stopping the spread of diseases.
The health dept. planned to partner with Shepherd’s Shelter/Ross Rehab and The Ark to provide treatment opportunities.
The health board had approved a plan that would restrict the program to the use of retractable needles. The dept. previously said it had $2,000 to launch the program, but believed there was additional money available on the state and federal level to support such a program.
Presentations to educate the public about a syringe exchange program were given to multiple entities in recent months, such as the Chamber of Commerce, city and county governments, ministerial association, etc.
The proposal passed the city council by a 3-2 vote and the health board 9-2.