By Bill Kirk
---- — Sen. Barry Finegold has joined a growing chorus of support for the hiring of a counselor to help combat the rising problem of drug abuse in town.
Finegold, an Andover resident, called the town Youth Services Department’s request for a $60,000 social worker/addiction counselor a “vital one that should be funded in the town budget this year.”
“As a state, we are facing an opiate epidemic,” Finegold said in a letter to The Townsman. “We must find ways to reach kids before they start down the path of drug addiction ... and the inclusion of this job in the town budget is critical to making that happen.”
Finegold, who is running as a Democrat for state treasurer, is the latest to criticize the actions of Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski and other officials, who have recommended cutting the position.
“Addiction does not discriminate — it hits our suburbs and our cities alike — and our young people are particularly susceptible to falling prey to it,” Finegold said. “Last year alone, we lost two young Andover residents to heroin. The town of Needham has lost three high school students this year to drug overdoses. This is not only tragic, it is unacceptable.”
Andover Youth Services Executive Director Bill Fahey earlier this year made the request in his budget for a $60,000 social worker so his department could respond to what he says has become a public health emergency here and across the state — addiction to heroin and other opiates. In addition to at least two deaths of young Andover residents attributed to heroin overdoses last year, he said there were many more close calls.
When the Board of Selectmen approved the $160 million town budget last week, the position had been dropped, although several selectmen were concerned about the cut.
“The most important position we can vote on tonight is getting someone with training in substance abuse,” Selectman Dan Kowalski said. “Fahey put it forward. The town manager cut it out. It’s a policy decision. Do you want to have an individual there who is going to help the community?”
The Finance Committee has also recommended approval of the budget without the position.
Finance Committee member Peggy Kruse said during last week’s meeting that it was selectmen who had pushed for personnel cuts in the budget because the town can’t afford to hire new, full-time employees due to the cost of long-term benefits such as pensions and retiree health insurance.
“You were saying don’t hire anyone new, now you are saying to hire someone new,” Kruse said to Kowalski and others.
Selectman Brian Major said that Fahey’s Youth Services Department has become the place to go in town for families with an addict because they have nowhere else to turn.
“These families go to Bill,” he said. “When parents are flustered and their kids are taking drugs and they don’t know where to go, they go to Bill. That’s what Bill was saying (in previous hearings). He’s getting an increased number of requests put on his group. They see there’s a need.”
“This was a proactive solution that would help the community,” he said. “I made a request, based on what we’ve been seeing all over the Merrimack Valley, not just in Andover.
“It was a support position — a youth services worker who would develop proactive programming for young people with a variety of problems. I thought I had support from selectmen and the Finance Committee.”
But despite that support, selectmen approved the budget without the position.
Stapczynski said Fahey had requested two positions in his budget — the program coordinator for $60,000, which he did not initial fund, and a clerk, or support person, for around $42,000. He said he initially recommended hiring the clerk so Fahey and others in his department could take on more active roles in counseling families with drug addiction issues.
Then when selectmen sought further cuts in the budget, Stapczynski eliminated the clerk’s position as well.
Stapczynski said he believes that the town should hold a summit of sorts with school officials and others to determine the best course of action for tackling addiction issues.
This week, selectmen are taking another crack at the issue. The Board of Selectmen was scheduled to hold a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the hiring of a youth services program coordinator/social worker among other issues.
They may hear from Finegold as they decide what to do.
“I am not one to normally weigh in about whether the town should or should not hire someone,” Finegold said in the letter. But, he added, “I urge the town to fund the position and hire a social worker/addiction counselor as soon as possible so that Andover can stand strong against this terrible epidemic.”