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Candidates discuss issues facing St. Louis County

VIRGINIA — St. Louis County's work to stem the opioid crisis and to address the number of children in out-of-home placements was up for debate on Monday.

Bernie Mettler of Embarrass and Paul McDonald of Ely, both candidates for the county board's District 4 seat currently held by Commissioner Tom Rukavina who is not seeking re-election, and Matt Matasich of Virginia, a candidate for the county's board District 6 seat discussed issues facing the county during the News Tribune's candidate forum in Virginia on Monday. Commissioner Keith Nelson, who is running for re-election in District 6, was unable to attend.

Mettler said he has seen firsthand as a St. Louis County sheriff's deputy the affect substance abuse has had on county residents. It's going to take many agencies working together to solve the opioid crisis and the county can't "throw money at it" or arrest its way out of the problem, he said.

Rehabilitation treats the symptom, but not the disease of opioid abuse in the community, Mettler said. He said the county needs to increase its education about opioids.

Matasich questioned the federal government's approval of opioids, saying that the government should have known more about the drugs before it approved them. He said he would consider faith-based rehabilitation similar to Teen Challenge to help address the opioid crisis.

McDonald noted that District 4 has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. If the county is successful in its lawsuit against distributors and manufacturers of opioid-based pain medications, he said he would like to see the lawsuit's financial award go toward helping residents affected by opioid addiction. The county took the right step in partnering on the Clear Path Clinic in Duluth for people to recover from opioid addiction, he added.

Parents are dealing with opioid addictions and can't take care of their children, leading to the county removing children from their homes and footing the bill for those out-of-home placements, he said. He added that it's a crisis that can't be put on the back burner.

McDonald said the county needs to recruit and retain quality foster families. Kids want to know that they're loved and they deserve a chance, because they're the future, he said.

Mettler said he has seen children taken out of poor home environments too late and they'll suffer the effects of it for the rest of their lives. The county pays for out-of-home placements and it's important that the county steps in before the child needs to be taken out of the home.

Matasich said he's not very familiar with the issue of the county's out-of-home placements, but the county could bring in faith-based institutions to take care of children who are removed from their homes.

The question of whether St. Louis County should be split into two fired up Matasich, who is running on a platform to split off northern St. Louis County and rename it "Mesaba County."

While Mettler said he doesn't support a split and McDonald said he wants the facts before making that type of decision, Matasich said he supports a county split because the taconite industry's production taxes are "dispersed all over the Arrowhead region." A new Mesaba County would be able to keep the revenues in the area, he said.

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