Morton County commissioners question Custer Health needle exchange program

MORTON COUNTY, N.D. - The Morton County commission is working on a preliminary budget for next year, and several agencies presented their requests Tuesday night.

Earlier this year a new needle exchange program was introduced at Custer Health. The group receives some of its funding each year from the county, and commissioners were unhappy the program wasn't on the budget for this year, and used tax payer dollars to get started.

“You spent $14,000 on this program and you never disclosed it,” said commissioner Andy Zachmeier.

Morton County commissioners, questioning Custer Health Administrator Keith Johnson why the good neighbor program, allowing needle exchange, was started with county taxpayer dollars, and commissioners were never informed.

“It makes me wonder how many of these other programs did you overestimate so that you could move money from one program to another and hide this from the county commission,” said Zachmeier.

Johnson said the request for the program wasn't made to the state until December, after the 2018 budget was approved. He also disputed claims it was started without giving the community notice.

“I wasn't in agreement about starting it without full disclosure,” Johnson said. “We actually had public meetings in January and invited everyone, some of the people in this room were there.”

Johnson apologized for omitting the program from the budget, and acknowledged the program may not be well accepted in the community.

“It is never going to be a popular program, this is a program born out of necessity,” Johnson said.

The program is on Custer Health's 2019 budget, however Johnson says they aren't asking for county money to continue the program. He says wages come from the state, and supplies are coming from grants.

The Lower Heart River Water Resource District also presented budget plans. It's requesting 4 mils in 2019, in comparison to the 2.54 received last year, to help fund the upgrade of the levee system to bring it up to FEMA standards.