2017-01-26 / News

Cost for detox center would be steep

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland (at podium) speaks at a public hearing in favor of a new $1.6 million drug detoxification and recovery center proposed as part of York County's 2017-2018 budget, which would cost Saco taxpayers at least $17,761 in its first year of operation. Seated, from left, at the Jan. 18 meeting, held at the Sheriff's office in Alfred, are (from left) York County Manager Gregory Zinser, and county commissioners Michael Cote, Richard Dutremble, Sallie Chandler, Marston Lovell and Richard Clark. (Duke Harrington photo)Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland (at podium) speaks at a public hearing in favor of a new $1.6 million drug detoxification and recovery center proposed as part of York County's 2017-2018 budget, which would cost Saco taxpayers at least $17,761 in its first year of operation. Seated, from left, at the Jan. 18 meeting, held at the Sheriff's office in Alfred, are (from left) York County Manager Gregory Zinser, and county commissioners Michael Cote, Richard Dutremble, Sallie Chandler, Marston Lovell and Richard Clark. (Duke Harrington photo)
ALFRED — While a proposed drug detoxification clinic is by all accounts much-needed in York County, given the current opioid epidemic, some municipal officials are questioning the cost, while others say it should be the state that runs point for any new offensive in the war on drugs.

Despite inclement weather, about 60 people attended a Jan. 18 public hearing at the county government building in Alfred, called to take comment on a $1.6 million facility. County commissioners hope to establish the center soon as early as 2018, starting with an initial $250,000 tax draw on the 29 cities and towns of York County.

If plans come off, the Layman Way Recovery Center would be the first county-run program of its kind in Maine.

“I commend the county for its efforts in pushing this issue forward,” said Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland. “Biddeford, Saco, and Old Orchard Beach have been working closely with the University of New England and the Coastal Healthy Communities Coalition to bring greater attention to recognizing addiction as an illness.

“We collectively recognize the need for more beds in our region and the need to save money on the jail side, instead of expanding the jail, because the jail is full,” he said.

Although he did not attend the hearing, Kennebunk Police Chief Robert MacKenzie offered a more concise assessment, when asked for comment in a Jan. 23 interview.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “We need to work with our medical folks, because this really is a disease.”

In the works for more than a year, the detox and recovery center would be a partnership between York County government, the York County District Attorney’s Office, and the nonprofit York County Shelter Programs. The county would own and operate the facility, using a building it owns at 2 Layman Way, next to the county jail. That site is currently home to the Southern Maine Re-Entry Center, a state-run agency that helps women transition from prison life back into the community. Plans are in place for it to move to state-owned property near the Maine Corrections Center in Windham.

According to York County Manager Gregory Zinser, the state will vacate the Layman Way site when its lease runs out at the end of March. The new center would include two parallel programs — a 12-bed detox clinic with average stays of 3-7 days, and a 24-bed recovery center (with 12 beds, each, for men and woman) in which clients would live for three and six months.

The facility would be managed by the shelter program, which currently offers substance abuse programs at its 37-bed shelter in Alfred, as well as its halfway houses in West Newfield and Portland. Clients at the new center would be accepted based on referrals from the legal and law enforcement agencies in York County. Detox and recovery programs would be run under separate budgets because, while there may be some crossover, the greater likelihood is they will serve separate bases.

“The programs are not meant to be utilized as a way to avoid jail, per se, but instead to alleviate overcrowding with a population of individuals who have been determined appropriate and eligible for treatment services,” reads the county proposal. “The focus is on providing the treatment not currently available in most jail settings, and in offering individuals the education and skills needed to arrest their substance abuse disorder and, hopefully, to avoid re-offending.”

It’s not so much full jails as full coffins that have captured attention and propelled the drug crisis to headline status is recent years.

Last fall, the state Attorney General’s Office issued a press release noting that, though Sept. 30, 286 people in Maine had died in 2016 as a result of drug opioid over- doses — a rate of about one per day, eclipsing the 272 drug overdose deaths for all of 2015.

Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the state is working to stem the drug crisis on all fronts, from treatment prevention to enforcement.

“Under Gov. LePage, it has been an all-hands-ondeck approach to take this issue head-on,” she told the Portland Press Herald.

Even so, that response has not met the need and the York County center is on the fast track for funding.

“The rational is pretty easy — it’s needed,” explained Zinser. “No one else is dong it. No one else is stepping forward and the county is willing to provide this service, because no single municipality can cope with this on their own. They’re doing everything they can do, but this is too big for any one of them.”

According to Zinser, the York County Sheriff’s Office does provide substance abuse counseling at the county jail, but it not equipped to provide actual detoxification or recovery services. Given a formal green light by county commissioners sometime next month, Zinser said he’ll include the first year of funding for the center in the annual budget he’ll submit in March. Commissioners will review and adopt a spending plan in April, before it goes to a 15-member budget committee for final approve May 1.

Zinser said the only current source of funding for the center is taxes levied by county commissioners on municipalities. The initial $250,000 assessment would be split, as the tax bill always is, based on state valuations, which places the largest burden on York (13.31 percent of the bill), Wells (10.16 percent), and Kennebunk (7.52 percent), on down to Cornish (at 0.43 percent).

Although the fiscal year for the county starts July 1, the center would not open until 2018, in order to get the most out of the first $250,000 by only extending it over six months. For FY 2019, Zinser said, the county would double the tax levy to the towns, to $500,000, plus kick in $200,000 it has in reserve funding. After that, the county would up the bill by $250,000 per year through the 2022-2023 fiscal year, presuming no alternative revenue stream is found in the meantime, Zinser said.

That means that Kennebunk would be called upon to contribute $18,791 next year, ramping up to $112,748 in FY2023.

“That’s a sizable dollar amount,” said Dick Morin, chairman of the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen, in a Jan. 23 interview. “An $18,000 line item is going to be a challenge to place it in our budget and we’ve had no discussion on that as a board as of yet.

“However, while I don’t mean to speak on behalf of the board, drugs are a huge problem,” Morin said. “I bet we use that amount of resources locally on the law enforcement side of the issues. So, I think it’s a worthy trade-off, that we’d win in that type of comparison.”

At the Jan. 18 public hearing, Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith adopted an alternate view.

“I, like others here, certainly commend you for your efforts in trying to get help to the people who need it,” she said. “That’s what government’s purpose is. But, while I’m not saying local taxation shouldn’t play a part in terms of the expenses, I see this as a state problem. I see this as the nation’s problem. And I don’t feel the local property taxes that are already very burdensome in a lot of communities are the only place where these costs should be shared.

“There are people who need the services today, so I’m not saying we should be bureaucratic in the approach,” Smith said. “But I really hope long-term we are looking at more partners than just the local property tax payer.”

Biddeford would be expected to pony up similar contributions, from $18,629 next year, up to $111,772 in FY2023. There, both City Manger James Bennett and Mayor Alan Casavant were more circumspect, edging toward Smith’s take.

“There is no question about the need,” Bennett wrote in a Jan. 24 email, sent in response to a request for comment. “ I am concerned about the proposal on several fronts. I am not sure property taxes should be used as the primary funding source. I also do not feel that the proposal has been well vetted among municipal leaders.

“While I appreciate the zeal to do something, I would encourage the issue to not be enacted within the county budget process but to take some time after budget season to allow more municipal officials an opportunity to fully be supportive that the proposal is the correct one and the funding recommendations are sustainable,” Bennett said.

“While I recognize the seriousness of this epidemic, I have not seen the particulars of this county program, nor do I know how well it has been vetted,” Casavant agreed.

“I personally believe that such facilities should be funded entirely by the state of Maine, as all counties are feeling the effects of this plague, and thus a state response is a much better approach,” Casavant said. “With the absence of state participation, the county is an appropriate source of funding, but, of course, that impacts local property taxes. Because the council and I are struggling to stabilize tax increases, because property taxes are already maxed out, any new county tax will definitely affect the mil rate, or impact local services.”

However, because county taxes are based on property values — meaning each municipality’s share is, at least theoretically, in line with its own increasing revenue and ability to pay — the effect on local mil rates “is not as much as you might think,” Zinser said.

The whole idea of ratcheting up the program by $250,000 per year, instead of creating the entire $1.6 million straight out of the box, is to minimize the impact to town services, Zinser said.

“We do not like to tax the residents of York County any more than we have to, which is indicated by our mil rate, which has remained stable over the past five years,” he said. “But we want to get this program up and running, and taxation is the best way to do that.”

Zinser pointed out that the $1.1 million the county currently pays in debt ser- vice each year is on the decline. Barring an unforeseen borrowing need, the books should be wiped clean by 2021, he said, essentially swapping out the recovery center costs for the debt payment.

Although the county is wary of the regulatory restrictions that would come from accepting state and federal money — rules Zinser said would reduce its 36-bed proposal down to 10 — other revenue streams may yet present themselves.

“Really, this is something that’s really only obtainable under the county umbrella,” Zinser said.

At least one speaker at the Jan. 18 hearing gave an indication of just how ill-equipped some towns are to cope with the burgeoning crisis.

“We deal with opioid addiction on a daily basis,” Berwick Police Chief Dana Lajoie said, expressing hope the new program will take referrals “at street level” from local departments, making it about more than just thinning the population at the county jail.

“My staff is working tirelessly to help people find assis- tance, to detox, to find beds that just aren’t there,” Lajoie said. “We work hours upon hours. We need more facilities. We need more beds. We need the help. And it’s not just all through the [county] jail, believe me. We’ve got a major problem all across this county — mind you, in the whole state of Maine.

“But we don’t bring charges to everyone that walks in our door, believe me,” he said. “We sit and talk to them and we send people home and have done this numerous times, to go get their fix, so they can come back and talk to us reasonably. That’s how bad this problem is. We don’t say it like that, of course,” Lajoie quickly clarified.

Still, it’s not always easy to talk to drug addicts who can’t carry on an intelligible conversation without being high.

“They’re not under arrest,” Lajoie said. “They come to us and they’re looking for help. They’re looking to talk. So, we’ll say, ‘Come back in three or four hours, we’ll have somebody here to talk to you.’ We know they are going to go out then and get their fix, so they can come back and better rationalize what they need for help.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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