Joint Meeting Addresses "Flood" of Drugs Coming into Sawyer County

Monday, December 11, 2017 | by Joe Morey |

An historic meeting was held between the Sawyer County government and LCO Tribal Governing Board (TGB) to discuss the opioid crisis affecting both communities, as well as several other issues like economic development, jail programs and a new criminal justice center.

“The idea is we are one community,” said Jim Schlender Jr, a member of the county board and the tribe’s chief judge, as he opened the meeting. The last time the two boards met was ten years ago.

The meeting was held at the LCO Casino and was attended by persons from social services programs at the tribal and county level, as well as concerned Sawyer County residents.

LCO Chairman Louis Taylor said, “We’ve come a long way since our last meeting and hopefully we’ll go a long way further.”

The main focus of the meeting was the drug epidemic hitting Sawyer County.

Judge John Yackel said this was a very important meeting. Yackel said the two court systems, county and tribal, traded flags to show their cooperation and commitment to keep the community safe.

“The tribal flag hangs in the Sawyer County courtroom as part of my commitment to serve everyone in Sawyer County,” Yackel said.

In regards to the drugs, “We need to find a solution, a sense of urgency. We talk about these issues and we say, ‘kids are affected’ or ‘we need more grants,’ ‘more treatment options,’ or ‘we can’t lock them up,’ but actions are tabled, and we forget about these topics.”

Yackel said meth and heroin seep into every aspect of our community.

“The storm we face will not pass. It affects all ethnicity, all ages, all people,” Yackel said. “I see it every day in my courtroom. Young people lost, children taken from their homes and its county and tribal. Alone we can’t survive this. Only together are we going to survive this.”

Sawyer County Board Chairman Ron Kinsley (right) and LCO Chairman Louis Taylor

Yackel said the same status quo can't go on. He said everyone needs to fight the epidemic, and he said we need more funding from outside the county to figh this.

“A river of drugs flow into our county and I urge you all to leave here tonight with resolve to see what it really is, a clear and present threat to our county,” Yackel said. “I wish I could tell you the solutions but I can’t.”

Yackel said as a judge, he deals with the after affects on the families in our community.

“I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom, but this is not the same discussion we had five or 10 years ago,” Yackel said. ‘It’s exploded over the last 12 months. We need to stand together and fight this. I hope this unity remains after tonight,” he said to the members of both boards.

Yackel said with almost every case that comes through the Sawyer County court these days, drugs play some part, from the illegality of the drugs themselves, to the crimes people are willing to commit to stay on the drugs.

It’s everyone in that court, rich or poor, young and old, it doesn’t matter, Yackel said. Tribal Judge Jim Schlender said he also see’s the affects in his courtroom. Schlender said he deals with a lot of child and family issues and he said they are embarrassed because they are addicted.

Schlender said there are other parts of our every day lives that will soon be affected, for example, addicts are using public bathrooms to take their drugs.

“Restaurants will soon be locking their bathrooms because it becomes a danger to their employees,” Schlender said. “Our crown jewel is tourism but if people don’t feel safe coming here, they won’t come here.”

Schlender said we have to rethink and recalibrate our methods on how we are going to fight this epidemic.

LCO Comprehensive Community Services director, Tammy Bergum, said her program located in the old halfway house on the reservation took in five intake crisis cases in the past week.

“We have kids, adults and elders,” Bergum said. “We have people coming in who are 20-year users saying, ‘I don’t want to die,’ but we have nowhere to place them.”

Bergum said kids are now affected. “We have kids who call us saying, ‘please help my parents, I don’t want them to die.’”

Bergum said it really is this bad. She said CCS should hear within days about whether they will get awarded a treatment center grant to turn the halfway house into a 16-bed, drug user specific, treatment center.

Bergum said they are currently spending a lot of time educating.

Gary Gerhard of LCO Behavioral Health said they are trying to get a site contract with the county jail so they can have a councilor go directly into the jail and work with inmates. He said a lot of times, inmates will be released right into the same environment.

Gerhard also said the county needs a treatment center. A lot of people come in for help but it takes 10 days to two weeks to find a placement. By the time we get them placed, they disengage and go back to their habits.

“We had programs in place to inform kids at the right age. We went right into the schools, but some programs have been cut,” Gerhard said. “We also need to reach the adults the same way.”

Sue Aasen, an attorney and tribal member, spoke at the meeting. She said we need to reduce recidivism.

“We talk about putting them in jail, but they come back into our community and they repeat. Now we have children repeating what their parents did. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken,” Aasen said. “We need to reinstate a lot of these programs for the children.”

Aasen said if you go into the court on a Tuesday, it’s hard to get a seat. She said there is way over representation in the courts and the jail.

Aasen also asked, “how can a family in the same apartment building where meth is manufactured keep their family safe.” She said she is dealing with a family in this situation.

Aasen said maybe it’s time to start doing checkpoints at the borders of the county or the reservation.

“Maybe drastic measures need to be done,” Aasen said.

Congressman Sean Duffy’s northern representative, Jim Miller, of Hayward, also attended the meeting. He said of the nine counties he serves for Duffy, drugs is the most prevalent topic he hears.

“We need some data,” Miller said. “We need ideas and some price tags on these solutions.”

Miller said $7.6 million in grants was awarded in funds for this issue, “but, unfortunately, those grants were awarded to the highest risk counties, which were counties like Burnett and Ashland.”

Miller explained that data collected in those counties showed they were more in need. He said according to data, there seemed to be more of a problem in those counties.

Several persons at the meeting, including Judge Yackel, disagreed that the problem was worse in those counties, but that data wasn’t collected effectively in Sawyer County.

“We are far more in need than those counties,” Yackel said. “All of us, the courts, the DA, law enforcement, we are all working at such a furious pace but we just can’t afford data collection and we don’t have the time.”

Miller said data would be extremely helpful for Duffy’s office to get more funding to Sawyer County.

“The Congressman is very dedicated to this issue,” Miller said.

Rose Gokee, tribal council member, said the tribe has the same problem. She said they are in just as much need as the other tribes in the area, but have the same data collection problem.

Louis Taylor said he would like to see the county and the tribe come together and ask the state for more gaming compact money to come back to Sawyer County for the drug issue.

Taylor also pointed out that in Minnesota, they have a law that renters have to clean up homes before renting them again that have known meth issues, but in Wisconsin they don’t have that law. He said there is concern for how many people move right into a home that had known meth issues and it then affects those new families.

“At LCO, housing has to clean up every home that tests positive for meth before another family can move in,” Taylor said. He said there are currently 16 homes that are vacant waiting to be fixed but it costs up to $30,000 per home to fix.

County board member Brian Bisonette said we all need to come together and not tolerate this issue anymore. Bisonette believes there should be check points and stop every vehicle if necessary.

“We need to kick it up a notch and get some state and national attention by declaring our whole county drug free and stop vehicles when they come in,” Bisonette said. “Maybe we can’t do that, maybe we can.”

Bisonette said there is a flood coming soon. One addict in attendance at the meeting said the flood of heroin on the rise in Sawyer County is going to make the meth problem look like a playhouse.

Joe Bodo said we don’t have a drug court anymore. “That’s one of the tools our county had,” Bodo said. “We used to be progressive on this issue but our county has gone backwards.”

Bodo said the county isn’t looking into a drug court again and he would like to see the tribe pursue initiating one.

Schlender said he would like to see a joint task force or committee set up that would come up with some proposals, solutions and present back to both boards.

County board supervisor, Kathy McCoy, said she liked the idea of going into the jails. She said the county board has toyed with the idea in the past but nothing came of it. She said this is one thing she would like to see a potential joint task force work on and come up with a proposal.

Sheriff Doug Mrotek said there are many jail programs in place, such as AODA, literacy tutoring, mental health counseling, bible study groups and WITC comes in to help with GED testing.

“I am very much supportive, we are very much supportive,” Mrotek said. He said when he came into law enforcement in 1983 there were 18 inmates at the county jail. Now it averages over 100. He said it all goes back to alcohol and drugs.

Gary Gerhard asked if some inmates could be transferred to support services. He said LCO Behavioral Health can provide that additional support at the jail. He also said drug court is needed.

“We are pursuing ways and means to reduce our jail population,” Mrotek said. “This isn’t about the money, it’s about people and we want to do all we can do to help.”

A recovering meth addict spoke to the boards and said if it weren’t for family support, she wouldn’t be in recovery. When she depended on friends, she couldn’t stay clean. “I was a mess.”

She said more people out there need to help their family members, regardless of their issues. She said her family got her off the reservation and she is now on her way to getting her children back, her life back. She added that drug court helped her.

Glenn Hall of the LCO Health Center said everyone needs to get engaged and not expect to get paid or it won’t get solved. He said, “We need a spirit of volunteerism.”

Another local resident who said he was a recovering addict, said it’s very important to get into the schools. He said take the K-9 units through and do random drug searches. He said it would help a lot.

“When you are on meth and you come down, you are tired and hungry, but when your body comes down from heroin, you starve for it,” the resident said. “The flood of heroin is just beginning and as it rises, there is going to be real crime in Sawyer County.”

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