Nearly a week after a needle exchange program won approval to operate out of the Fresno County Department of Public Health, some city elected officials publicly complained.
Mayor Jerry Dyer said the Fresno County Board of Supervisors made the “wrong decision” when it voted 3-2 on Sept. 5 to approve a $0 lease with the nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Free Medical Clinic & Needle Exchange.
Dyer said county leaders did not consider the impact on surrounding businesses, including school district buildings and residential neighborhoods.
“It’s wrong because they didn’t understand the impact it might have on investors that we are trying to lure into downtown for the purpose of building housing and retail and restaurants,” Dyer said at a Monday morning news conference at City Hall.
Dyer said the supervisors were “perhaps … in a vacuum, in a cave” for not realizing the city’s downtown revitalization efforts.
“It will have an impact, a negative impact on downtown Fresno,” Dyer said.
The nonprofit will use the public health offices for its program on Saturday afternoons from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. The program is funded through state grants and private donations.
Advocates say providing clean needles and other paraphernalia, as well as other health and wrap-around services, will lead to positive health outcomes for the community.
Pacheco Explains Needle Exchange Benefits
Supervisor Brian Pacheco explained why he backed the program in a statement to GV Wire on Monday afternoon.
“After visiting the current site of the San Joaquin Valley Free Medical Clinic and Needle Exchange and hearing the Department of Public Health presentation last week, I felt it was in the best interest for those administering the program and the program clients to be taken from the street and moved indoors to the Department of Public Health facility,” Pacheco said.
“Because the program only operates on Saturdays for a limited time period, I did not believe it would impact the businesses downtown.
“In addition to the needle exchange, this program operates as a low-barrier clinic utilized by the most vulnerable in our population. It’s a place where they are treated with respect and dignity.”
Pacheco added that by allowing users to properly dispose of needles, the number of needles left in parks and other public spaces will be reduced.
Needle Exchange Program Locator Map
Councilmen Criticize Needle Exchange
City councilmembers Garry Bredefeld and Miguel Arias joined Dyer, blasting the county.
“This is a terrible and, frankly, destructive decision,” Bredefeld said. “ Frankly, in my opinion, the Board of Supervisors is a complete disgrace.”
Bredefeld questioned whether such programs encouraged drug use, and why taxpayers should cover the costs.
Arias said he was “pissed off” by the board’s vote. The supervisors never bothered to reach out to other stakeholders on the block, including schools and other businesses, Arias said.
“Instead of providing our residents with shelters and treatment programs, the Board of Supervisors has become the drug dealer’s assistant,” Arias said. “What’s next? Should we expect them to start providing free opiates to kids to reduce the harm of fentanyl?”
Arias said the city would have to cancel downtown Fresno events because of the needle exchange’s new location.
“It’s really short-sighted and it’s a really big middle finger to everyone who has spent years revitalizing downtown,” Arias said.
The county responded later in the afternoon about health concerns.
“Because of the ample space available at the Department of Public Health (DPH) building and the current rate of participation, all persons served would be able to wait inside the building instead of waiting in lines outdoors. Proposed resources including security would ensure a secure and safe environment for both the administrators of the program and persons served, both inside and outside the facility,” the county said in a news release.
City Leaders Unaware of County’s Proposal
The three Fresno leaders asked their county counterparts to reconsider the motion. They seemed to be unaware that he county was discussing the motion, despite it being on the publicly released agenda the prior week.
“I can tell you where I was. I was here at work at City Hall and did not know that the item was even being heard at the Board of Supervisors because I don’t check their weekly Board of Supervisor agendas. But I found out about it from my chief of staff after the decision was made and reading about it in the paper,” Dyer said.
Dyer said it is the county’s responsibility to let the city know what they are doing.
“We should have had a sit-down conversation discussion,” Dyer said.
Arias said the county was exempt from city requirements to notify properties within 1,000 feet.
The county said in its news release: “The program was listed in a Board Briefing Report (a public document) as of August 14, 2023. The item wasn’t voted on until September 5th. Throughout these 22 days, the County has never received any calls from the Mayor, councilmembers, or city staff about their concerns.”
Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who voted no on the lease, said he wants a stronger city-county relationship.
“I would welcome the (county) having more open communication with the city of Fresno,” Magsig said.
Arias, Bredefeld Running for Supervisor
Dyer noted the political aspect of his news conference colleagues. Bredefeld and Arias are running against current supervisors Steve Brandau and Sal Quintero, respectively.
“I’m not running for Board of Supervisors. I’m trying to protect our downtown and revitalize it. My motives are pure. Their motives are pure. It’s because I care about this city and they care about downtown. And so do I,” Dyer said.
Fresno County scheduled a news conference to offer a rebuttal on Monday afternoon.
County Has Their Say
Later Monday afternoon — and after the filing of this first story — Fresno County officials responded.
County Administrative Officer Paul Nerland and others from the health department told the media the benefits of the needle exchange program. They spoke from a cul-de-sac a few blocks north of Roeding Park, where the nonprofit needle exchange operates every Saturday afternoon.
“This program is about building trust … to get people to participate in drug treatment programs, you have to build trust, and a lot of these programs around this will assist with that,” public health director David Luchini said.
The county also shared a 2021 study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that said needle exchange programs are safe, help prevent disease, and are not associated with increased drug use or crime.
Several other studies researched by GV Wire found similar conclusions.
Nerland said Mayor Dyer should have handled his complaints about the lack of county-city notification differently.
“I would have appreciated further a direct phone call to say that instead of a press conference to say, how about we work together on this?” Nerland said.
“Nobody wins in the end when we are fighting with each other. At the end of the day, we need to work together, and I think we can. But we need to communicate more effectively. We need to work together. And I think together we can do a lot more. But no, it doesn’t help when the communication is in a press conference,” Nerland said.