Over the past two years, as state attorneys general agreed to more than $50 billion in legal settlements with companies that made or sold opioids, they vowed the money would be spent on addiction treatment and prevention. They were determined to avoid the misdirection of the tobacco settlement of the 1990s, in which billions of dollars from cigarette companies went to plug budget gaps instead of funding programs to stop or prevent smoking.
But in at least one California county, history is repeating itself. And across the country, many local leaders are finding themselves in similar positions: choosing between paying bills due today or investing in the fight against an ongoing crisis.
Mendocino County in rural Northern California has reported the highest rate of overdose deaths in the state. Its board of supervisors decided to use more than $63,000 of opioid settlement funds — about 6.5% of all the settlement cash the county has received in the first two years of distribution— to help fill a budget shortfall of about $6 million. Specifically, the money has been allotted to cover employee health insurance premiums, wage increases, and cost-of-living adjustments. County officials plan to use that amount as a recurring source of payment, since opioid settlements are scheduled to arrive annually till 2038.
The board also used retirement reserves and delayed repair projects and equipment purchases to plug the gap.
“We have to balance our budget by law,” said Glenn McGourty, chair of the board of supervisors. “You find money where you can.” …