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Overdose crisis again overshadows Erie County budget hearing

Mark Bucsek tried to hold it together but, in the end, he cried.

And listeners sitting in the formal Erie County Legislature Chambers cried with him.

His brother died after getting his hands on what he thought was a packet of heroin.

"In reality, it was a highly lethal dose of fentanyl," said Bucsek, an Elmwood Village resident, his voice trembling as he struggled to choke out the words. "There wasn't any heroin at all."

For the second year in a row, the realities of the region's ongoing drug overdose epidemic turned what is typically a long, dull public hearing on the proposed Erie County budget into a sad and sometimes emotional affair.

"The death toll this year exceeds last year's number, but that is not for lack of effort," said Debra Smith, who told the Legislature the story of her son's overdose death last year during the hearing for the 2016 budget.

Family members and health advocates with the county's Opiate Epidemic Task Force urged the County Legislature to recommit resources and attention to maintain the momentum in addressing the deadly opioid epidemic.

Some acknowledged that the county has already made great strides over the past year, but said the hard work must continue in the face of hundreds more local deaths and suicides just this year.

"This epidemic is growing faster than we are able to battle it," said Bucsek, who also urged the Legislature to help remove the stigma of addiction in the community.

"We need to spread the message that not all addicts are inherently criminals or bad people," he said. "In fact, these are unfair classifications. Unfortunately, I know this from first-hand experience. Less than six months ago, I lost my brother Adam to a drug overdose at age 31."

He wiped tears as he struggled to continue reading.

Like others, he urged the Legislature to consider ways the community, health organizations, lawmakers, and the criminal justice system can continue to press for changes and improvements to help more struggling addicts survive and recover.

The comments from those speaking about losing loved ones stood in sharp contrast to the dozens of others who came before the Legislature to thank the county for considering additional funding for various nonprofit, arts and cultural organizations.

Roughly 50 speakers attended Monday night's public hearing. Many came to thank the Legislature and to promote the good work of their organizations.

Diane DiStefano, with the Buffalo Psychiatric Center's Office of Mental Health, acknowledged that the Legislature has many worthy petitioners for funding. But the addiction crisis is one that requires special focus and support.

"I'm asking that when proposals come before you this year related to this issue, that you are open minded and give these proposals your undivided attention," she said, "that you remember the fact that people do recover. Recovery happens every day. My loved one is proof, and there are thousands more in the county."

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