AUGUSTA — The city still will seek federal funding to hire a police officer focused on youth drug abuse education and prevention even though it is expected to cost the city $90,000 more than officials first expected.

City councilors voted 5-2 Thursday to reaffirm their vote of a month ago to authorize city administrators to apply for federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, funding to cover part of the salary and benefits of an entry-level officer for three years to focus on drug prevention in local schools.

The second vote was taken because the deal wasn’t quite as sweet as city officials first thought. They initially believed the grant would cover 75 percent of the cost of hiring the officer for three years, with no obligation to keep that officer beyond that time period. However, City Manager William Bridgeo said police Chief Robert Gregoire later discovered the federal program has a cap of $125,000 on how much federal money could be provided and it requires the municipality to commit to keeping the officer on, at city expense, for a fourth year. Bridgeo said the changes could add about $90,000 to the city’s cost over four years. That’s on top of the roughly $47,000 city officials first thought Augusta would be required to provide as a local match to the grant.

After extensive debate, councilors agreed to go for the funding anyway and make the bigger-than-anticipated commitment of city money. Councilors and Mayor David Rollins described the cost as a worthwhile investment in the future of Augusta’s youth and necessary to fight a prevalent opiate drug abuse problem.

“The cost of not funding this, in my estimation, is going to be greater than the cost if we do,” Rollins said. “If we lose another generation, if we don’t reach out and get them connected to the positive side of life at a young age, we can’t get them back when they’re in middle school and high school and they’re hooked and it’s a disease.”

Ward 4 Councilor Anna Blodgett, one of the opposing votes, said the extra cost made adding a new police officer to the force too expensive.

“I support all the Police Department and know how important they are, but I have to vote against this,” she said. “Last year we added two new officers we budgeted for. With the change in the funding for this, I hate to commit a future council to about $150,000 that’s not budgeted right now.”

At-Large Councilor Dale McCormick, the other dissenting vote, said she couldn’t support the additional expense for an officer to teach the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program saying there are more effective ways of dealing with drugs.

Jared Mills, deputy police chief, said he and Gregoire conducted a national search for an effective standardized anti-drug curriculum they could bring into the city’s schools, and DARE was the only one they found. They said the DARE program was revamped in 2010 and statistics show that having an officer interacting with children in the early stages of their lives, in a positive way, pays dividends not just in avoiding drug abuse but also in addressing other problems in children’s lives.

He said a school resource officer spends nearly all her time at Cony High School, which also is the city’s middle school, leaving little time for her to interact with children in the city’s four elementary schools.

Mills also said the demands on police are increasing, with calls to the dispatch center for police and fire services in Augusta increasing from 52,000 calls in 2006 to 87,000 calls in 2015.

At-Large Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau said the extra cost was tough to swallow and he didn’t want to increase taxes, but he feared that if the drug problem grows it could cost even more in the long term.

“We have heroin in our schools. We have kids addicted to pain-killing medication that is the lead-in to all this,” Bilodeau said. “We have a lot of kids who maybe aren’t being parented in the way they should, running around the city of Augusta. If we can keep some kids (off drugs), that’s savings in treatment later on. That’s savings in jail later on. And it’s not just savings for the community; its about quality of life.”

Bilodeau said he expects results from the program and wants to get updates on the program’s effectiveness.

Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis said spending money now on drug prevention at the elementary school level will pay off in a reduced drug problem as those students grow up.

“We’re making a decision tonight that hopefully is going to ameliorate the situation we find ourselves in today,” he said Thursday. “We have an opportunity to participate in this grant program and plant a tree this evening that won’t flower for 15 to 20 years, maybe 50 years. But it will flower. It will bring positive results.”

In other action, councilors also approved a proposal to declare a Mount Vernon Avenue building the city had torn down last month a dangerous structure.

The designation is expected to allow the city to move ahead with plans to seek to recoup some or all of the $12,500 cost of having the vacant building demolished from the owner, a representative of whom objected to the building being torn down. City officials and a structural engineer determined it was at risk of imminent collapse and had it removed May 13.

City Manager William Bridgeo said it appeared to officials the 58 Mount Vernon Ave. building literally was sliding off its foundation, and a structural engineer hired by the city said it could collapse at any time if a tractor-trailer truck were to drive by on Mount Vernon Avenue, where a major construction project was going on and where the sidewalk was within 10 feet of the home.

Ralph St. Pierre, who was acting city manager when the unstable building was reported on May 13, consulted with city attorney Stephen Langsdorf, declared the building to be a risk to public safety and hired a local contractor to demolish the structure.

Councilors voted 7-0 to declare the already-removed building dangerous and a risk to public safety.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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