INDEPENDENCE, Ky. -- Independence, a quiet suburb in central Kenton County, became the second city in Northern Kentucky to show support for a regional needle exchange, voting 5-1 Monday to back such a program.
Kentucky cleared the way for needle exchanges last year, as the state looks for ways to combat an epidemic of heroin addiction. Health officials point to Scott County, Indiana, which had an HIV outbreak from people sharing used syringes.
Needle exchange programs are seen as a way for addicts to avoid infection, getting a clean syringe for each dirty one they bring in, as well as a place to offer testing for diseases and addiction counseling.
"The needle exchange program, that's simply a maintenance issue. That's putting out buckets because your roof is leaking," Independence Mayor Chris Reinersman said. "The buckets will not stop the roof from leaking, but at least you can try to reduce some of the damage from it."
Reinersman called the heroin epidemic "the single biggest issue facing us, the single biggest threat we have" in Northern Kentucky.
EDITORIAL: How should we combat heroin epidemic?
Dr. Lynne Saddler said the Northern Kentucky Health Department has struggled to find support for a needle exchange; if the agency wants to open a needle exchange at one of its clinics, it must first get permission from the city and county in which the exchange would be operated. Pendleton County is the part of Northern Kentucky with a needle exchange program, and once it was established, it went unused for the first few months.
Williamstown, in Grant County, is the only other Northern Kentucky city to vote in support of a needle exchange program.
The Northern Kentucky Health Department doesn't plan to operate a needle exchange program in Independence in the immediate future -- "The whole intent here was to get the message out to other cities that we can get together and give the county the support that they need," Reinersman said -- but Monday's vote was no less important, Saddler said.
"Support is growing because people are understanding that we have this window of opportunity to prevent an HIV epidemic from happening," Saddler said.
RESOURCES: Where to get help for addiction
The Northern Kentucky Tea Party sent its members an email warning of Monday night's vote and urging them to show opposition to the program; no one from the group spoke Monday night. Other opponents said they believe an exchange will bring more crime, reward those breaking the law and do nothing to rehab addicts.
"I understand the pull to want to help people, I completely understand that, but I don't think this is the way to do it," Sean Fitzgerald said.
After being asked to leave other neighborhoods, the Cincinnati Exchange Project van found a place in Northside, where community council president Ollie Kroner said none of the fears have turned out to be true.
"The more neighborhoods, the more cities that take this one, the more impactful this becomes," Kroner said.