MANCHESTER, NH – It was dismal enough, says Alderman Pat Long, that the request for a drug court in Manchester got voted down during Tuesday night’s Hillsborough County Delegation budget meeting.
Even worse, that the margin was just four lousy votes. Long explained that although the vote was 39-44, they only needed 43 votes for approval.
Which underscored another dismal truth: It would have been nice for the other 38 elected Hillsborough County representatives to have shown up to vote on the annual budget, he said.
“Out of 122 Hillsborough County reps, there were only 84 delegates there,” said Long.
Mayor Ted Gatsas, who also attended the meeting, said if only all the Manchester delegates who did show up had supported the measure, it would have passed.
Gatsas was also critical of State Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, who argued against using money from the surplus account for a one-time expenditure.
“And in the next breath, Neal Kurk voted to take $1 million of one-time dollars to reduce the tax rate? This isn’t over. Every life is worth saving, and I’m not prepared to stop here,” Gatsas said. “Stay tuned.”
Long felt it was duplicitous of Kurk to say it should be funded by the state.
“He’s the House Finance Committee Chairman – he knows there’s no money at the state level,” Long said.
Long requested $443,000 from the county’s $4 million in surplus tax dollars to fund a drug court at Hillsborough County Court North in Manchester. Both he and Gatsas have been advocating for the alternative court system, which is in place in other counties around the state with notable success in helping chronic drug offenders find a way out of the vicious cycle of addiction, incarceration and recidivism.
On June 22 several people showed up to the county complex in Goffstown to offer testimony to the executive committee in advance of Tuesday’s vote, including former Hillsborough County Attorney Patricia LaFrance.
She said she took personal time off from her new post as Deputy Rockingham County Attorney to make a case for bringing drug court to Manchester.
“That’s how important I thought it was,” said LaFrance. “I know drug courts are successful. We have one in Rockingham, with 27 active participants. Our success rate is higher than the national average, and I know it can be effective when it’s done right.”
She said during her time serving in Hillsborough County one of her defendants, a longtime heroin addict, was offered the opportunity to go through drug court at Hillsborough County South, in Nashua.
“It was frustrating to me as a prosecutor to see this person constantly in trouble. I felt he was a good person who was just caught up in the grip of this horrible addiction,” LaFrance said.
She said she recently heard the rest of his story, that drug court had worked for him, and that he remains clean from drugs, and is getting his life back on track.
“I was so happy to hear that. This is a guy dealing with addiction for years, and I figure if we can turn him around, we can get to others in need who can benefit from this,” LaFrance said.
The other benefit would be the savings to the county. The estimated cost of incarceration is about $30,000 annually per inmate. According to LaFrance, the cost of treatment through drug court is one-fifth of that, multiplied by the number of drug court participants – up to 40 annually – that’s a significant saving to the county, she said.
“I felt it was important enough to me as a citizen of the county, and as an experienced felony prosecutor, to let the delegation know that they should support this. But I also came for selfish reasons – I live in this county. I have friends and family here. I don’t want them to become victims. I don’t want them to have a gun shoved in their faces for drug money, or someone climbing through their bedroom window to steal something so they can support their drug habit.”
Long said everyone who spoke out against funding drug court prefaced their comments by saying it was “a good idea.”
“But then they turned around and argued that the state should fund it, or the judicial system should fund it – or Manchester should fund it, because ‘it’s a Manchester problem.’ That’s what I don’t get; we’re in an epidemic, yet we’re going to argue over where the money comes from? That’s like, if my house is burning, let’s argue where the water is coming from that the hydrant is going to hook up to,” Long said.
Long said he brought documentation with him to underscore that the problem is not isolated to Manchester, but is in fact a countywide problems. Armed with news clips detailing cases of addiction, Narcan use and drug-related crime happening in towns like Weare, Bedford and Goffstown. Long did his best to sway the votes.
“Some people who said they were going to support it, didn’t when it came time to vote,” Long said.
In lieu of county funding, Long said he will continue to look for grant money, and is in touch with New Hampshire’s delegation in Washington, D.C., U.S. Senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, as well as Congressman Frank Guinta, the city’s former mayor, who has told Long he’s also looking for grants.
“The bottom line is that if this had passed at the county level tonight, the longest implementation time might have been three months, max. I’m in favor of the most expedited initiative toward ending this opiate epidemic. I know it’s not a panacea. I don’t believe it’s going to cure everything, but currently we’re doing nothing,” Long said.
“I never thought I’d live in a society that would be OK with parents calling the police to put kids in jail so that they may live; I never thought we’d see a society where we have to sweep Little League fields for needles, so our children aren’t getting hurt,” Long said. “The arguments from those in opposition were all about savings. This isn’t about financial savings; it’s about saving lives.”
Hillsborough County Attorney Dennis Hogan said the margin of defeat represented those legislators who thought funding drug court should be a state responsibility, or that the issue was brought into the county budget process too late, or both.
“No one opposes the idea that the methods of a drug court are desirable,” Hogan said. “Perhaps the state will take up the idea in the next legislative session.”
Long said he isn’t giving up yet, either.
“By all indications the governor will veto the proposed $11 billion state budget, and if so, we’ll have to operate on a revolving resolution. I’m going to see if we can’t get this $433,000 into that revolving resolution,” Long said.
“And if I can’t get it from there, then I’ll propose taking it from the $8 million we’re supposed to be getting from the revenues from liquor sales by way of the Alcohol Fund, which we never get,” Long said.