The Blount County Board of Commissioners has voted 14-3 to approve the removal of “property structures” at the site of a proposed transition facility.

The Thursday vote reignited a debate surrounding the proposed facility, which originally was conceived as an addiction treatment and education center designed to help alleviate crowding in the Blount County jail back in 2019.

Plans for the facility, on a piece of land behind the DENSO facility in the Bungalow community, were delayed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and, according to county officials, there are currently no immediate plans to build the facility.

Still, the resolution prompted a discussion among commissioners regarding the merits of the proposed facility.

“It is not that I lack compassion for the folks that this concerns. It is not that I don’t recognize that there is a national opioid crisis,” Blount County Commissioner Mike Akard said. “It has affected my family as it has so many other families across this nation. I just don’t think that it should fall on the taxpayers to be forced to pay for the decisions of the people that get in trouble in this manner, and that’s why I can’t vote yes for it.”

Akard was among three commissioners who voted against the resolution, along with Steve Mikels and Tom Hood.

County Commissioner Tom Stinnett expressed support for the proposed facility, countering Akard’s point by insisting that Blount County already is losing money in the fight against addiction.

“I want to assure everyone that I don’t believe that taxpayers should be paying for those issues, except for the fact that we are paying for them,” Stinnett said. “We’ve been doing it this way forever, putting people in jail for drugs. And it’s not working. We need to try something different, we need to try and help these people. And yes, it’s tax money but all we do is shift it from one place to another.”

Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell waded into the debate, clarifying that the resolution on the table proposed clearing the location for liability reasons.

“I don’t know how this turned into us building a facility, but this is just a piece of property that we own. We’ve talked about building a transition facility there but there is an old house there, falling down, and people are going in there,” Mitchell said. “It’s an old house with an old swimming pool behind it and we’re just trying to tear it down to eliminate any liability that the county may accrue by people going in there. We’re not trying to build a facility and if we can build one for $31,500, I’ll be real excited about that. We’re just trying to tear down a structure to eliminate the liability that we have on that site.”

While Mitchell did not voice an opinion on the proposed facility on Thursday, he has expressed support for it in the past, telling The Daily Times in 2019 that it would be a place for people “trying to get their life back in order.”

Since then, the opioid crisis has only worsened, with 3,032 overdose deaths in Tennessee in 2020, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. That’s a 45% increase from the previous year.

With no end to the opioid epidemic in sight, many in Blount County continue to express support for the transition facility, including Stinnett.

“We’ve got a pot of money we’ve been saving for the facility and until I quit or somebody beats me, I’m going to be pounding the drum for it,” Stinnett said.

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