AUGUSTA — City councilors tasked themselves and the rest of city government with fighting heroin and other opiate abuse, addressing childhood hunger, coming up with ideas for long-term economic development, seeing that property maintenance and preservation standards are created and upheld, and supporting the development of the old Colonial Theater in their session setting goals for the coming year Saturday.

Councilors all agreed the heroin epidemic is of utmost concern but struggled to define and agree on what specifically the city can or should do to address the crisis.

Councilors ultimately indicated their goals should include encouraging the location of a treatment facility in Augusta for heroin and other opiate addicts, helping to create a website listing resources where addicts or their family members could turn to for information and help getting off those drugs, keeping tabs on the effectiveness of the addition this year of two police detectives in stopping heroin abuse and sales in the city, and increasing access to help and providing more resources to local schools to help make sure students learn of the hazards of drug addiction so they don’t take opiates and get help if they do become addicted.

Mayor David Rollins said he’s heard from families of addicts who don’t know where to turn for help in Augusta.

At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander suggested a goal of creating a website listing resources to help with heroin addiction within 12 months.

At-Large Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau said while many people may not want to live next to a drug treatment facility, the lack of one here is a hurdle to people in need of treatment to escape addiction. He said the city should encourage the location of a treatment center in Augusta, not financially, but by perhaps helping with zoning and finding a location for one.

Councilors agreed the issue needs to be discussed and that the city should be more involved with a local group of police, school and community health groups which is already meeting regularly and working on the issue.

“The community is asking us to do something. We all hear that loud and clear,” Bilodeau said. “It’s affecting everybody in the community. It doesn’t discriminate on economics, where you live, your race, it’s in everybody’s family. Everybody knows somebody who has gone down this pathway. If you don’t, you’re very lucky to not be affected by this.”

A majority of councilors agreed a goal for the year should be passage in some form of a property maintenance ordinance to be partnered with an abandoned and vacant property ordinance passed last year to try to improve the appearance and maintenance of private properties in the city.

“There may be some push-back on the property maintenance issues, but overall the city is screaming for it,” Ward 4 Councilor Anna Blodgett said of a controversial proposed property maintenance ordinance that would require property owners to keep their buildings and properties from falling into disrepair or becoming unsightly.

Blodgett said the city needs to hire another code enforcement officer to enforce the recently passed abandoned property ordinance and the proposed property maintenance ordinance.

A majority of councilors said supporting the development of the Colonial Theater and the north end of Water Street where it is located should be a goal.

“It doesn’t have to be used as a theater, but it needs to be rehabbed and it needs to become a downtown anchor,” Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said of the vacant, dilapidated riverside theater.

But several councilors noted that support for the current privately-organized efforts to restore the former theater, lead by Richard Parkhurst, may not come in the form of city money paying for any of the restoration.

Ways to foster long-term economic development discussed by councilors included looking into making Augusta a certified part of the AARP Age-Friendly Communities Network, working to find a developer for the city-owned Kennebec Lockes site at the former Statler mill property next to the Kennebec River, becoming a Certified Local Government through the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and considering the recommendations of a recently-formed economic development and workforce development committee.

Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, noted the city will face another challenging year financially because of several factors that will increase costs. He said a proposal to increase the state Homestead Exemption over the next two years would cost the city property tax revenues, some previously taxable properties in the city are now tax exempt, the city will lose about $250,000 in excise tax revenues previously paid by Central Maine Power to register its fleet of corporate vehicles in Augusta because of a state law changing where utilities pay excise taxes on their vehicles, and contracted wage increases for city employees combined with a $219,000 increase in the cost of health benefits for employees.

St. Pierre also said a recent state income tax cut is not expected to be fully offset by an increase in state sales taxes. He said it is thus likely the state may cut state revenue sharing to municipalities and funding to schools to close the funding gap left by the unfunded cut to income taxes in the next three years to balance the state budget.

City Manager William Bridgeo and Frank O’Hara, a consultant hired to help with the goal-setting process, plan to turn Saturday’s nearly day-long session of discussion into a set of draft goals for the council to consider approving for the coming year.

Bridgeo said the goals created by councilors will be used over the year to guide city staff and help them prioritize.

“We reference this on a routine basis,” Bridgeo said. “It’s not just an exercise; it has real value in the organization.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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