Court officials are questioning why about $2.4 million awarded to Greene County as part of the 2021 settlement of the multi-county “Sullivan Baby Doe” opioid lawsuit was used to pay off existing debt.
Judges and prosecutors would like to see the funds go to treatment programs or other addiction-related initiatives to combat the region’s opioid epidemic.
The Greene County Commission allocated 90% of the settlement money in October 2021 to the county’s General Debt Service Fund, according to a county commission resolution.
Reserving the funds for drug treatment and related purposes was the stated goal of three district attorneys general who filed the Baby Doe lawsuit when the settlement was announced in July 2021, including Dan E. Armstrong of County of Greene.
County Mayor Kevin Morrison wrote in an email this week that the county’s $2.4 million was “placed in General Debt Service by county commission resolution to help Greene County to offset expenses already incurred for Greene County”.
The expenses relate to “years of law enforcement commitment and management of drug offenses and substance abuse issues, the incarceration and correctional management of these cases, and to offset the costs associated with a number excessively high number of pretrial cases currently languishing in Greene County that fall entirely to the local jurisdiction for maintenance and payment.
“Having said that, we do not have, do not preclude or exclude involvement or partnership with any of our surrounding communities in substance abuse and/or addiction related treatment facilities (or) drug addiction needed in the future,” Morrison wrote.
He acknowledged that “on a conference call with some of our judicial officials, they expressed regret and displeasure that we had allocated this money to expenses already linked to years of these cases”.
Morrison added that the $15 million vocational and technical training program is an “entirely different subject” and that CTE programs are “completely separate” from opioid lawsuit settlement funds.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY, JUDGE’S COMMENT
Armstrong, whose four-county district includes Greene County, was one of three district attorneys general to file the groundbreaking 2017 lawsuit.
Armstrong expressed disappointment this week with the actions of the Greene County Commission.
A $35 million settlement with Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc. was paid to nine northeast Tennessee counties in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Judicial Districts to resolve the complex civil lawsuit. The lawsuit was among the first to hold pharmaceutical companies named in the lawsuit responsible for the regional epidemic of opioid addiction, and the first to include a baby born with neonatal abstinence syndrome as a plaintiff. The plaintiff, nicknamed “Baby Doe”, was born in Sullivan County.
Lead Attorney J Gerard Stranch IV, who represented the district attorneys general in the lengthy litigation process, said in July 2021, when announcing the settlement with Endo, that “financial resources will soon arrive in areas that bore the brunt of the opioid epidemic. ”
“Municipalities understand their unique needs better than anyone, and they can direct these funds to areas and projects where they are most needed,” Stranch said.
Armstrong was told that the Greene County Commission “voted to apply proceeds from Baby Doe’s lawsuit to debt service.”
“While I am certainly disappointed that the proceeds were used for this purpose, under the terms of the settlement the county was free to use the money as it saw fit. The intent of the lawsuit was to directly address the opioid and addiction treatment needs of the community with these funds,” Armstrong wrote in an email. “However, I hope they are still willing to fund drug treatment programs for low-level, non-violent criminal defendants, as has been proposed by (1st Judicial District Judge Stacy L.) Street and our local judges to open boot camp in Carter County to house such treatment options.
At one time, the former Greene County Developmental Center was being considered for conversion into a regional addiction treatment center. Instead, the regional treatment facility will likely be located in a former Carter County inmate labor camp operated for many years by the Tennessee Department of Corrections that closed in 2021.
Armstrong added that Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr., Greene County General Sessions Judge and Juvenile Court Judge, “definitely needs more funding for his drug recovery court.”
“I support both initiatives and am ready to help and promote both. My understanding is that other counties that received trial proceeds have restricted their use to combat the drug epidemic,” Armstrong wrote.
Bailey also expressed her disappointment.
“I sincerely wish the county commission had followed the path taken by other Northeast Tennessee counties and retained the trial funds, and worked with law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, and the justice system to develop a plan for how the funds could best benefit the residents of Greene County,” he wrote in an email this week.
“As in other counties in our area, the opioid epidemic has affected every family in Greene County in one form or another. This lawsuit was filed by district attorneys against producers and distributors of opioids because of their deceptive practices,” Bailey wrote.
Greene and surrounding counties “continue to feel the impact of the opioid epidemic in many ways: people struggling with addiction; children raised by parents or in the foster care system; our mental health system with limited resources but with a high number of people in need of individual mental health counselling; and the list could go on and on,” Judge wrote.
Specific to the Greene County Recovery Court program, Bailey wrote that the program “is the largest it has ever been with over 30 participants”.
“We have many needs in our program, including a sober home/facility for our program participants who do not have a safe and stable environment to live in,” he wrote.
“I am saddened that this $2.4 million was applied to debt instead of being set aside to help solve the drug problem,” Bailey wrote.
Bailey wrote that Morrison assured him, Armstrong and others “that he would do everything he could to ensure that Greene County could participate in the Greene County Drug Treatment Program. Carter proposed by area criminal court judges.”
The Hawkins County Commission voted in January to participate in workshops with other counties to discuss opioid addiction treatment and set aside its $1.65 million settlement award for Baby Doe until so that the judges of the region can discuss a rehabilitation center needed in the region.
A group of judges spoke to Hawkins County commissioners at their January meeting about the need for a treatment center as an alternative to incarceration for people struggling with substance abuse issues. Among them were 3rd Judicial District Circuit Court Judges Beth Boniface, Alex E. Pearson and William Phillips and 3rd Judicial District Criminal Court Judge John F. Dugger Jr.
CARTER COUNTY FACILITY
Greene County has not committed any funding for the Carter County project.
Morrison wrote that around the time Baby Doe’s lawsuit funds were received, Carter County had begun an effort to establish a regional drug treatment center at the former Carter County Asylum near of Roan Mountain.
“This process of developing this facility into an addiction treatment center is ongoing, and Greene County is certainly willing to participate. To date, no plan for funding, budgeting, staffing or perpetual operation of such a facility has been presented to us,” Morrison wrote.
He cited “a successful and similar regional program,” the Johnson City Regional Juvenile Detention Center, which is overseen by the First Tennessee Development District.
All of the region’s county mayors, including Morrison, sit on the board of directors, and the facility is funded by the region’s counties on a per capita basis.
“It is how I foresee that a regional addiction treatment center could also be established and operated, but I don’t know because no concrete plan has been presented to Greene County,” Morrison wrote.
“We look forward to the presentation of a concrete plan for our participation review which addresses perpetual funding, accountability, budgeting, state participation (if applicable), staffing personnel, partnership (with any outside addiction/recovery providers, if applicable); and a perpetual plan of operations,” Morrison wrote. “We believe that these planning prerequisites are absolutely necessary and consistent with good practice in financial management before any funding is committed.”
“In addition, there will be contracts for the use, operation and maintenance of efforts between all (the counties), which will also need to be agreed before committing funds,” Morrison wrote.