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Drug court battle between Manchester, county not over

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 04. 2015 10:08PM

MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas and other city officials are decrying a vote last week by the leaders of the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation against the city’s request to fund a drug court, which would direct addicts who commit low-level crimes into treatment rather than jail.

The delegation’s 22-member executive committee, which is made up of state representatives from towns and cities in the county, rejected spending approximately $450,000 for the drug court as part of its budget for the coming fiscal year.

Gatsas said he and Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long spoke with members of the delegation ahead of the vote to convey the severity of the drug problem both in the city and surrounding towns. They had argued that the county could use a portion of its $5 million surplus to fund the drug court.

“I would think the biggest city in the state, that probably pays the largest county tax, would certainly get a better reception than it did,” Gatsas said on Wednesday. “This is an epidemic, not just in Manchester, but in the state of New Hampshire and in the whole country.”

The full county delegation, made up of 123 members, still must approve the final budget.

On Tuesday, the city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to send a letter to the entire delegation urging them to provide funding for the drug court, and Gatsas and Long plan to meet with members next week.

Drug courts are now in operation in Nashua, and in Cheshire, Grafton, Rockingham and Strafford Counties. Most are partially, if not almost entirely, paid for by county governments, which are responsible for funding county attorneys, corrections and sheriffs departments.

The chairman of the Hillsborough delegation’s executive committee, Manchester Republican Rep. Larry Gagne, said the county “can’t afford” adding a drug court to its budget.

“The sheriff’s department, corrections, have what I consider a bare-bones budget. To add another $450,000 to the budget would increase the tax rate, and my first job is to keep more of the taxpayers’ money in their own wallets,” Gagne said.

Asked if he felt drugs were largely a Manchester problem, Gagne said: “I don’t know if it’s a Manchester problem or not. It’s centered in Manchester because we’re the biggest city and do have a sizable problem. However, I don’t think it should be the county’s problem. (The city) should reach out for state funding or go to the feds.”

The state’s first drug court was established a decade ago in Strafford County. Officials there credit the program with reducing the recidivism rate among graduates to 22 percent. This compares to a national recidivism rate among drug offenders of about 67 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“When somebody is addicted, they’re chemically dependent on the substance,” said Alex Casale, director of the drug court program in Strafford County and state coordinator for alternative sentencing programs. “Putting them in jail removes them from the public for a period of time, but when they come out, they’re still chemically dependent, and they go back to their old lifestyle. That’s why you see recidivism.”

The Strafford County program was initially funded through federal grants, but its annual budget of about $380,000 now comes almost entirely from the county, according to Casale.

Alderman Long said it was shortsighted for representatives in more suburban and rural areas to think the drug problem was confined to Manchester.

“Let’s say I’m in Weare, and my home was broken into twice, and I was told it was related to drugs,” he said. “I’m going to go to a public hearing and say we have to do something about this addiction issue ... The underlying curse is the addiction.”

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