DECATUR — The Macon County State’s Attorney’s Office is set to gain a new prosecutor dedicated to handling opioid cases, funded by the private foundation of Macon County Sheriff Howard G. Buffett.
The position, as well as a paralegal and their benefits, will be covered through a $180,000 grant from the Buffett Foundation. The position was approved by the county’s Justice Committee at a Nov. 16 meeting, according to the meeting minutes, and will go before the full county board Dec. 14.
It is a three-year grant and is not expected to be renewed afterward, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Baggett told the Justice Committee. Baggett said the grant should enhance the office’s ability to aggressively take on the opioid epidemic at the local level.
When reached by phone Friday afternoon, State’s Attorney Jay Scott said he would need to speak to Buffett before he could comment about the grant. A spokeswoman for the foundation said Buffett was flying to Rwanda to accept an award and would not be available for comment until next week.
Buffett was appointed sheriff on Sept. 15 by outgoing Sheriff Thomas Schneider, who said he was stepping down for health- and stress-related reasons. Buffett has said he will serve the remainder of Schneider’s term, until November 2018, but will not run for the position in the upcoming election.
Data from the Illinois Department of Public Health shows an increasing number of people in Macon County have died of opioid overdoses over the past four years. Six deaths were reported in 2013, and 14 were reported in 2016.
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The son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Howard Buffett has given millions of dollars to Decatur-area projects and agencies in recent years. The Decatur City Council is set to consider on Monday a $1 million grant for sweeping neighborhood revitalization efforts, and Buffett has paid $260,000 for consultants to evaluate the Macon County Jail with the expectation that he will spend even more on improvements.
Before he became sheriff, Buffett had provided more than $1 million in grant funding to the sheriff’s office to pay for the hiring of a drug intervention officer and underwrite the cost of accessing drug treatment programs.
With the funding, the sheriff’s office in February 2016 began offering a new option for drug users. They were invited to come to the Law Enforcement Center and turn over any drugs or paraphernalia in exchange for a new lease on life through a drug treatment program.
“About 50 percent of the inmates in our jail are drug addicts, who are involved with drugs just for personal use. Our jails can not handle this,” Buffett told the Herald & Review in September 2016. “They might have stolen something. They're not violent criminals, not dealers, not bad people. What they have is similar to a drinking problem.”
In the same article, Buffett shared that his cousin, Billy Rogers, died of a heroin overdose when he was 37. The experience inspired Buffett's passion for helping drug addicts and preventing addiction, he said.
“It sticks with you," Buffett said. “A drug problem is not just that person's problem.”