Commission discusses attorney office, opioid settlement, and mid-year budget
by David Boyle
The San Juan County Commission discussed the county attorneys office, an opioid settlement, and approved a mid-year budget adjustment at their latest meeting.
The San Juan County Attorney’s office is seeking additional help to tackle case loads. During an August 2 work session, members of the County Commission heard from County Attorney Brittney Ivins about the proposed restructuring of the office.
At the beginning of 2022, the County Attorney’s office had elected county attorney Kendall Laws, full-time deputy attorney Alex Goble and part-time attorney, Ivins.
Following Laws’ resignation and Ivins’s appointment as the attorney through 2022, the office now has two full-time attorneys, Ivins and Goble.
With an increased workload, county staff hope to hire an additional full-time attorney, as well as reclassify the office’s legal assistant to allow for more functional assistance in the office.
Commissioner Bruce Adams asked what the cost would be to make the part-time position full-time and upgrading the responsibilities of the legal assistant.
County staff reported a cost of $70,000 a year for the reorganization.
“Every office can use another employee. Road department they’re down, mental health they could use another therapist, but we have to decide as a county commission can we afford that,” said Adams.
County staff hopes to cover the costs through Transient Room Tax (TRT) funds. TRT funds are collected at lodging throughout the county, although state restrictions mean the funds can only be spent on costs related to tourism such as promotion. A change of funds would impact the Economic Development department.
Ivins explains the county attorney office work load is heavily impacted by travelers. “We ran some quick numbers and from the last two-and-a-half years we had about 1,500 cases,” said Ivins. “and 700 of those came from tourist cases.”
Ivins explained that the calculation excludes cases of people from the region, such as Kayenta or Dove Creek and also excludes all Utah addresses, including Salt Lake City and north.
Ivins also reports San Juan County had a higher caseload and is five people understaffed when compared to Grand County. Similarly, San Juan County reports being understaffed in comparison to Emery and Kane counties.
County Administrator Mack McDonald added another unknown is the impact of a recent Supreme Court ruling in the case of Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, which authorizes state governments to exercise criminal jurisdiction when a non-Indian commits a crime against an Indian in Indian country.
Previously, that jurisdiction belonged to the federal government.
McDonald reports the county is seeking counsel from the Utah Attorney General Office and will meet with state and Navajo Nation officials.
County staff will revisit the numbers in the proposal and bring it to a future meeting.
At the same work meeting, commissioners received an update on the far-reaching opioid settlement between the Utah Association of Counties (UAC) and opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Private companies Janssen (Johnson & Johnson Pharma) and Big 3 Distributors (Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen) settled in connection to lawsuits claiming their practices of manufacturing and distributing pain medication helped fuel the opioid crisis which resulted in addiction and overdoses across the US.
Although San Juan and Grand counties originally intended to attempt to reach a settlement themselves, a judge’s ruling in a West Virginia case in July reflects the unlikelihood of either county winning settlement against the large companies.
The ruling resulted in both counties joining the State of Utah settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors.
As a result, San Juan County is set to receive $59,346 over 11 years from one settlement and $259,000 over 18 years in another settlement.
Use of the funds from the settlement are limited to certain items like purchase of Naloxone which can be used to reverse drug overdoses. Other uses include Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) distribution, prevention programs and treatment for incarcerated populations.
San Juan County Emergency Management Director Tammy Gallegos supports the use of MAT services for incarcerated populations.
“Because of disability laws, you have to provide those MAT services in jails,” said Gallegos. “I know that could come at a cost to the jails. I think a portion of this funding you should look at using some of that for MAT in jails.”
According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), MAT programs treat opioid use disorders by combining medications such as methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone with counseling and behavioral therapies.
San Juan County is paying a toll from the opioid crisis. Across the US, addicted opioid users are turning to illicit fentanyl to satisfy opioid addiction often with deadly results.
According to the CDC, more than 56,000 people died from overdose involving synthetic opioids in 2020.
Gallegos and deputy county attorney Alex Goble both report that fentanyl use in San Juan County is on the rise.
“In the last year and a half, we went from one case a year to 40 at a drop of a hat and it’s still going up year after year. We’ve lost four county residents this year to fentanyl.”
McDonald recommends the Emergency Management Department meet with the Sheriff’s department to discuss needs and possible uses for the funds.
The county also held a public hearing regarding the update of the county resource management plan.
In June, County Public Lands Coordinator Nick Sandberg explained that the county first adopted a resource management plan in 2017 as required by the state legislature.
The resource management plan is a document that informs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service how the county would like to see public lands managed.
An update to all county plans is required by the state, with a deadline of the end of the summer. Part of the requirement is to include policies for utility corridors and pipeline and infrastructure.
Following a public hearing in a July county planning commission meeting updates to the draft were made. No public comments were provided at the August county commission meeting.
The county commission also held a public hearing for the 2022 proposed mid-year budget adjustments. The county reported $481,000 in increased expenses over the anticipated 2022 budget.
The county did report $204,000 in increased revenues coming from increase in general sales tax, federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and state inmate reimbursement.
Despite that there was still a deficit of $283,000. The county was able to use federal ARPA funds to make up the difference. McDonald explains
“We’ve been able to apply some of the ARPA funds to making those ends meet but two years from now we won’t have those ARPA funds to make our ends meet.”
At the meeting, the commission also approved a project for a mountain biking trail system in Spanish Valley.
San Juan County Economic Development office will work with the Grand County Active Trails and Transportation to create the Mud Springs Trail System.
Partners for the project include the Bureau of Land Management and The National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
The proposed two-phase project would include two zones with trailhead parking for 15-20 miles at $330,000.
Phase two would include two more zones with the potential for a connector to the LaSal South Mountain Trail and possible extended loop options for 25 more miles at $500,000.
Grant funding sources will reportedly cover most of the costs for the system.