News Feature

Deer Isle & Stonington
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, March 16, 2017
Towns split on funding request but OFIP plans to push forward

by Anne Berleant

The voters of Deer Isle and Stonington, each considering a $20,000 request from the Opiate-free Island Partnership, made different decisions at town meetings earlier this month.

Deer Isle approved the request by a majority vote, while Stonington turned it down 30-45 by written ballot.

Half of the requested funds were earmarked for education within the school district, bolstered by an additional $20,000 to be reallocated from the 2017-18 school budget and $10,000 from Island Health and Wellness Foundation. The joint-island CSD #13 Board will have to approve reallocating $20,000 within the next few months.

The remaining half was to be used for treatment and recovery, with an additional $20,000 from Island Health and Wellness.

“Obviously we were disappointed by the response from Stonington but that didn’t deter us,” OFIP co-chairman Roger Bergen. “The good news is that we have half the funding. [Deer Isle] showed overwhelming support. That was very positive, very encouraging.”

Bergen said the IRS-registered nonprofit would work to compensate, through grants, for the funds that were not forthcoming from Stonington. However, without the financial support of the town, getting those grants may prove more difficult.

“That was one of the major feedbacks we got from future and potential donors, that the towns be [in support],” Bergen said. “The fact that Stonington rejected the warrant [article] is going to make that harder for us. The fact that Deer Isle was so supportive softens that a bit.”

OFIP, formed by current and former members of Healthy Island Project, Island Health and Wellness, and the Island Education Revitalization Committee, school representatives, elected officials and, more recently, members of the Island’s recovery community, is not deterred from its mission, Bergen said.

But he questioned the mixed message from Stonington, especially after a meeting two years ago with selectmen at which Bergen said they “saw the problem, recognized and acknowledged the problem and felt something needed to be done.”

“Two years ago they seemed to be quite concerned… [This] group was really an outgrowth of that meeting,” Bergen said.

At an October 2015 meeting, Stonington selectmen expressed, not for the first time, their concern with the increasing opiate problem, with Selectman Chris Betts advocating for direct action after noting that the Stonington economy made the town an attractive target for drug dealers.

At that meeting, Town Manager Kathleen Billings pointed to the impact addiction has on the wider community, including emergency response personnel such as the fire department, ambulance and police crews.

But handing over $20,000 to a newly formed nonprofit did not find majority favor, with the voters and selectmen.

“Clearly two of the four selectmen at the meeting were very opposed to the town participating in this effort, at least financially from tax dollars,” Bergen said. “We tried to come up with a plan that we thought met what their concerns were two years ago, but obviously that didn’t fly.”

Bergen said that making an impact on opiate addiction is complicated.

“Our real effort is not to reinvent the wheel but to try to pull in as many resources off and on island to pull this together.”

Apart from funding the opiate education piece, which Bergen said was the group’s top priority right now, efforts include arranging for more frequent visits to the island from mental health counselors licensed in alcohol and drug addiction. Currently, a counselor from Aroostook Mental Health Center comes monthly, to meet with patients undergoing opiate addiction treatment at Island Family Medicine. OFIP is currently in talks with AMHC and Island Family Medicine as to what kind of services and when they are needed for treatment and recovery.

Starting a Narcotics Anonymous group on the island is another plan, although Bergen said it would take time, and that some individuals in opiate addiction recovery attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, of which there are three weekly on the Island.

“Treatment is tough, there’s no doubt about it,” Bergen said. “Our focus, really, is let’s do everything we can to prevent people from getting addicted in the first place.

“Having said that, there are going to be cases where people get addicted, and I don’t think you want to turn away from them….We have to do everything we can to help them. As hard, as difficult and as expensive [as] it is, we can’t ignore them. That’s the area I felt we didn’t address at the town meeting.”

The bottom line, Bergen said, is that despite the Stonington vote, “we are still very strong believers that if people pull together with resources we can still have an effect on this issue.”