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Packed house to discuss county’s hot topics

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LYDIA BAULER

STAFF WRITER

The meeting room of the Seneca County Board of Commissioners was packed with not a seat left in the house to address a trinity of key county issues: the ongoing opioid crisis, the wind turbines, and economic development.

Executive Director Mircea Handru of Mental Health and Recovery Services Board gave an update on T-CAP funding, which serves felony 5 drug-offenders by keeping them in the local community for treatment in a rehabilitation program.

Handru said the board received a grant in October 2017. Seneca County is expected to receive $268,576, which is divided between the courts, Seneca County Sheriff’s Office, and the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board.

The county is using its allotment to partner with Oriana House Inc. and hired Ron Green, a specialized drug intensive probation officer for the program, in January, according to Handru.

Green reported the program “is going very well” so far. 11 of 23 offenders were assigned to the program by the courts to the Drug Intensive Probation Office program and then moved into Participating in the Victory of Transition drug recovery program.

Green said offenders are moving through the program and advancing into next phases. The offenders receive skills training and counseling while being subject to drug tests, home visits and curfew checks, said Green.

The probation officer said the program is “growing and growing all the time;” however, due to the intensity of the program, they will cap it at 30-40 offenders at a time.

Seneca County Common Pleas Judge Steve Shuff, a supporter of the program, said 17 of 100 people with felony 5 offenses in his court have been diverted to DIPO rather than state prison.

Shuff pointed out these offenders have committed the least severe felony, just one above a misdemeanor, and are typically facing charges of possession or trafficking minor amounts to support their own drug habit.

He looks to the program to be one of many “armaments” in the “war” against the opioid crisis in the community.

“If somebody doesn’t realize it, I’m sorry we have a war and its called the opioid crisis,” he said. “We’re in a war and we need every plane, tank, armament we can get and this is one of them.

“It’s not the only one. PIVOT is not the only one, CROSSWAEH is not the only one, prison is always an option, but its not the only one. We have to have all of them and we’re fighting this and it is a constant battle, but I really believe we are heading in the right direction.”

Shuff concluded, “I believe the battle is going well. We have setbacks, but we have a lot of successes.”

Mike Kerschner, president of the county commissioners, also brought up the Ohio Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment.

The ballot initiative, which could be on the state ballot in November, aims to “reform our criminal justice system and reinvest millions of dollars into drug treatment and community-based recovery programs,” said The Ohio Organizing Collaborative’s website.

The proposed amendment would reclassify from felony to misdemeanor any crime for obtaining, possessing, or using a drug or drug paraphernalia. All current drug trafficking felonies would remain felonies.

Further, the amendment would allow the reclassification to be done retroactively, so people currently in prison for possession-only offenses could be released, and people with past drug-possession felonies could get them reclassified, “opening up job opportunities for thousands of Ohioans.”

According to Kerschner, no official stance has been taken on the legislation by area representatives and agencies; however, an increase in strain on the county system is a potential concern.

Also during the meeting, tensions around the controversial wind farms being planned in Seneca County came to a head again when a member of the public questioned why Commissioner Shane Thomas would not sign a waiver allowing Seneca County Prosecutor Derek DeVine to represent both the townships and county regarding the turbines.

DeVine said he did not feel there was a conflict of interest at this point, particularly since the Ohio Power Siting Board is different than normal litigation; however, there was potential for a conflict of interest to occur and said there would be no client-attorney privilege in the arrangement representing both sides.

“The waiver is just putting it out there for everybody saying, ‘Hey, we’re representing everybody and there’s no privilege as it relates to any communication you have with us as it relates to this situation,'” he said. “To my understanding, Commissioner (Shane) Thomas indicated to my assistant prosecutor that he wasn’t willing to sign that waiver so I wanted (the townships) to know you need a lawyer.”

The waiver must be signed by all commissioners and trustees in order for DeVine to serve as legal counsel for both.

Kerchner said he would sign the waiver because DeVine would mostly be required to read a position paper, which he does not see as a conflict of interest or matter of confidentiality at this point.

Commissioner Stacy said she had not decided if she would sign the waiver because of the loss of confidentiality for the county.

Thomas said his chief concern was also the loss of the protection of client-attorney privilege.

“I don’t have a problem with the prosecutor representing, what I have a problem with is waiving our rights as a county; it’s my duty to continue to protect the county and its rights to have confidential conversation with council and have attorney-client privilege,” he said.

Separately, SIEDC President and CEO David Zak, Downtown Main Street Manager Amy Reinhart, Communications Manager Katie Lang and Development Manager Bryce Riggs presented a mid-year update on economic development in the county.

Reinhart said the firm has 29 active projects and in downtown Tiffin from renovations to investments to hiring to new business. In addition, SIEDC has 45 projects outside of downtown Tiffin and 13 in the county, according to Zak.

Overall, the agency reported postive economic growth with unemployment down to 5.0 percent, a little lower than the state average of 5.3 percent and reduced from a 12.7 percent average in the county in 2009.

Zak said some challenges for economic development the county faces, including finding and maintaining a workforce, a lack of real estate and how to promote businesses and policies, such as the recent tariffs, which both hurt and harm businesses.

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