WESTERLY — The Town Council is considering getting rid of a few boards and commissions, including the Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force.

Council President Christopher Duhamel said the council will discuss the future of the local task force in light of the new regional approach to substance abuse prevention being used by the state.

"We want to discuss how it fits in with the state requirements and certainly the community's requirements. Is the regional approach enough to focus on or should Westerly have its own as well," Duhamel said in an interview this week.

Duhamel also recalled that the task force was discussed during the campaign leading to the 2018 council election. "There were some questions about its success and whether it was fulfilling its mission," he said.

In 2017 the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals announced a new statewide model involving the creation of seven new regional substance abuse prevention task forces to oversee and manage smaller task forces throughout the state. Under the new arrangement, Westerly is part of the South County Prevention Coalition, which also includes Charlestown, Hopkinton, Richmond, Narragansett, New Shoreham, North Kingstown and South Kingstown.

The original Westerly task force has been out of money since spending what remained of a five-year, $485,000 Rhode Island Strategic Prevention Framework Partnerships for Success grant last year.

Mark Sullivan, chairman of the Westerly Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force, recalled a candidate for the Town Council calling for abolishment of the task force and asking Westerly Hospital, the Westerly Police Department and school officials to coordinate a municipal response to the opioid abuse problem. "It struck me, at the time, as being somewhat redundant because the hospital, the police and the schools were amply represented on the existing task force," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said he would resist a move to do away with the local task force and plans to communicate his position to the council. "I think it's important for the community to have its own substance abuse prevention" organization, he said.

While not critical of the regional model per se, Sullivan said "it was probably rolled out before it was really ready to be launched. There is still, to this day, considerable confusion about what this is, how it works and how we got here."

Sullivan said he envisions the local task force being funded through a combination of town and grant funds. "Because of our affiliations there are probably things we could do that the regional model could not do," he said.

Jason Jarvis, a member of the task force, shared many of Sullivan's views. "The local task force does still have a place. The regional approach is great but that's only an umbrella. The town itself needs a task force," Jarvis said.

Jarvis said the local task force has struggled to forge its own identity after controversy erupted in 2015 regarding how the task force operated and its hiring practices. At the height of the opioid crisis, he said, the task force encountered denial of the problem. "We'll put signs up about the dangers of coyotes ... but God forbid we talk about one of the worse opioid epidemics in the country," he said.

Sullivan and Jarvis both said the current iteration of the task force has yet to get the type of collaboration from the council that it needs. "We're kind of orphaned. There's not a great deal of support or enthusiasm as you might see, for example, with the Recreation Department or other departments or facets of town government," Sullivan said.

During the meeting, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. in Council Chambers at Town Hall, the council will also discuss the possible abolishment of the Airport Advisory Committee, the Public Parking Commission, and the Minimum Standards Housing Board of Review. The airport panel has met infrequently since it was constituted in April 2018 and has struggled to discern its purpose.

The council is also scheduled to discuss the proposed $71.4 million school redesign project. "I'd like to see how it compares to our annual operating budget, the road bond and a wastewater treatment bond that is estimated at $4 to $5 million. We'll be looking at it from a budgetary point of view, not programming, which is the purview of the School Committee," Duhamel said.

The council must decide whether to schedule a fall referendum on a potential bond for the school project no later than May 20, Duhamel said.

The council is also scheduled to receive a presentation from the Bike Path and Cycling Advisory Commission on plans for a share-the-lane bike route in Misquamicut.

A presentation from the Board of Finance on the water, sewer, transfer station and animal shelter budgets for 2019-20 is also on the agenda.


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