By Richard Sullins |

It’s been nine months since North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced a landmark settlement with four opioid manufacturers that will provide $750 million in desperately needed help for counties and cities that have been harmed most by the opioid epidemic. Those dollars will be split between all 100 counties and 45 cities and towns to support treatment programs and connect people with the care they need.

But as Lee County Commissioners heard at their last meeting on April 4, the needs in this community – as in most others across the state – will outpace the funds available to address them.

Lee County Commission Chairman Kirk Smith, a Republican, and County Manager Dr. John Crumpton attended a state-level meeting last week to learn more about the opioid settlement funding and how it can be spent. The usually unflappable Crumpton described the meeting as “tough, really tough, especially the first couple of hours. The chairman and I saw some really tough things.”

“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “You hear and see those things and you just wish that you could do more than what we are able to do right now. And what we are going to be able to do with the money that we will be given.”

Second in size only to the tobacco settlement in November 1998, the $26 billion nationwide settlement ends all claims against the nation’s three largest pharmaceutical companies – Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen – and a fourth company, Johnson & Johnson.

Lee County’s total share of the settlement is $4,206,172, an amount that will be paid out over 16 years. The first payment of $161,599 will be received this spring and a second disbursement of $355,388 will come during the summer. After 2022, the county will receive one payment per year that will range from a low of $185,619 to a high of $349,231, with the final payment coming in 2038. Annual payment values are determined each year by the timing of payments made into the fund by each of the four defendants.

$4 million won’t be enough

It was clear that each of the six commissioners present understood that the needs of individuals and families within the county impacted by the opioid epidemic are much greater than the funds available to address those issues.

“It’s probably a lot less than we thought it was going to be, to be honest with you,” Crumpton said of the settlement. “There were a lot of restrictions that were put in place under the settlement and we’re still trying to figure that out. They were supposed to front-load this thing, but we thought that they would front-load it a lot more than they actually did. Trying to figure out what to do with this money is a tough assignment. $4 million might be enough to put up a building, but we are also supposed to address education and treatment with these same funds.”

The county manager continued that “people across the state are realizing that we will have to use a regional approach to do this, because if you do it on your own, your money is not going to go very far.”

He’s already reached out to Moore County to discuss the possibility of some type of joint venture there and plans to be in contact with Harnett County just after that.

The city of Sanford didn’t seek funding from the opioid settlement, but its Opioid Abuse Epidemic Commission is interested in getting involved, something that could be critical because the terms of the settlement call for the engagement of cities and towns in the county’s implementation plan.

Crumpton spoke to the heartbreak and sense of hopelessness opioid addiction has brought to communities across the country.

“This issue doesn’t know boundaries. It’s everywhere,” he said. “It goes across city lines and county lines. It’s bad and it’s not getting any better.”

Additional trail work at San-Lee Park

While creating new trails at Gravity Park at San-Lee Park last fall, the county determined additional work would need to be done in the spring to address several safety issues. A number of the bike trails cross on to other properties and some intersect with other hiking trails at the park.

The commissioners authorized a contract with Blue Ridge Trail Works, Inc. of Statesville in the amount of $72,200 to construct a new cross-country trail at the park that will be designated as a “beginners” trail, as well as making other improvements that will address the safety concerns identified last year.

The project will also include rebuilding the hiking trail around both lakes, as well as new bridges and fishing decks to replace the older ones. The existing mountain bike trail will also be moved from non-park property back to county-owned land, meaning new trails will be built to keep users on property owned by Lee County and off private property.