Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

April 17, 2014

Funding for drug counselor a must

The Andover Townsman

---- — Finally, Andover leaders are at least talking about getting serious about the problem of opiate abuse and heroin addiction.

At recent meetings, the Board of Selectmen have taken up the cause championed by Andover Youth Services Executive Director Bill Fahey, who wants to hire someone to help families in town coping with the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse among adolescents, teens and young adults.

Last year, two young people died from heroin overdoses in Andover.

Fire Chief Mike Mansfield said that during all of last year, there were eight overdoses. While that number seems high, this year is on pace to be even worse, as Andover tied that figure by the end of March.

It was one of the reasons Mansfield was prompted to place Narcan in town ambulances and eventually every Fire Department vehicle in town. Narcan, a nasal spray, revives overdose victims and essentially brings them back to life.

Selectmen are hoping to do the same thing with Fahey’s proposal.

Originally, Fahey, who was hired 20 years ago in the face of a suicide epidemic, put in for two, new positions in his budget: an office assistant and a program coordinator. Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski said “no” to the more costly program coordinator, reasoning that a new office assistant could free up Fahey and his staff to work with families and addicts seeking answers.

Whether it was an office assistant, a program coordinator, or, as it’s now evolved into — a social worker — Fahey said he needed the extra person because he wants to try to get ahead of the problem of addiction in town.

“This was a proactive solution that would help the community,” Fahey 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.”

But then selectmen ordered Stapczynski to eliminate all new hires. The town manager went back to the budget, cutting the office assistant from AYS, along with several other positions in other departments. The menu of cuts led to an anguished debate among selectmen, who quickly realized they may have painted themselves into a corner with their call for no new employees, particularly with regard to the AYS budget.

Selectman Dan Kowalski said that cutting the AYS staff person amounted to a “policy decision” that was basically saying selectmen didn’t care about the heroin problem in town.

But Kowalski and other board members argued passionately last week in favor of filling the position, and were expected to do so again at a meeting this Wednesday night.

Selectman Paul Salafia summed it up nicely when he said he didn’t want to see the town go through what he called the “municipal dance,” consisting of studies and workshops and panel discussions followed by more indecision and, “eight months from now, someone will come out with a report and we won’t fill the position.”

“I think this position could be critical,” he told The Townsman this week. “This problem is too big and has gotten too out of control too quickly for us to ignore it for another budget year.”

Salafia is right.

The town should fill the position, and hire someone at AYS, which at this point in time is the best — and perhaps the only — local agency equipped to handle the difficult task of counseling families coping with opiate addiction.