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Drugs called 'scourge' in Westmoreland County's bright future

| Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

Westmoreland County has a bright future in terms of economic development, job growth, a better trained workforce and improved education opportunities, but the cloud overhead is the “scourge” of drug abuse, addiction and drug-fueled crimes, county commissioners said Thursday.

An improving economy and business climate that is helping the county grow, along with an increase in housing starts and rising real estate prices, give hope for a better days ahead, Commissioners Chuck Anderson, Tyler Courtney and Ted Kopas said in their “state of the county” address at Ferrante's Lake-view restaurant in Hempfield.

Keeping that flourishing economy moving is the county's primary challenge, Anderson told the audience of more than 225 community, government and business leaders.

An indicator of economic vitality is the county's jobless rate, which fell to 4.8 percent in November, down from 6.5 percent in November 2013. At the official end of the recession in June 2009, the county's jobless rate was 7.7 percent, according to state Department of Labor and Industry figures.

Anderson praised the education and workforce training provided by Westmoreland County Community College, which is set to open its Latrobe campus later this month.

“It is one of the highest-rated and lowest-cost community college in the state,” Anderson said.

The nursing program, he noted, is a major supplier of nurses for Excela Health, which operates hospitals in Greensburg, Latrobe and Mt. Pleasant.

“We're not creating jobs; we're creating careers,” Anderson said.

The county has “a great climate for employment,” with a good workforce and quality of life, Courtney said. More businesses are moving into the county, and workers are being trained for those jobs, he added.

But, there is a serious problem with drug abuse and drug overdoses in the county, one that has not been solved by jailing offenders, Kopas said.

Unlike the stereotypes that drug abuse is limited to deteriorated neighborhoods, Kopas said it exists in more affluent areas along Route 30 — from North Huntingdon to Ligonier. Abuse of prescription medication is a problem as well, Kopas said.

There were 78 drug overdose deaths in 2014 in Westmoreland County, down from 86 in 2013, according to the coroner's office. That number likely will rise, because 15 cases are pending a final ruling on the cause of death.

Heroin remains a deadly drug of choice among users — 33 of the drug overdoses were heroin-related, up from the 26 heroin deaths in 2013, the coroner's office said.

The Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force has set a goal of cutting drug overdose deaths by 25 percent in the next four years, Kopas said.

The task force wants to reduce the number of repeat offenders who go to prison on drug charges, which Kopas estimated to be about 30 percent of the county's inmates.

Educating people about drug use is a way to approach the problem, because the county doesn't have the resources to rehab all the addicts or house them in prison, Courtney said.

“Throwing people in jail obviously hasn't worked. You have to teach people not to do this. It's (drug abuse) not demonized like it should be,” Anderson said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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