Aldermen discuss needle exchange

In a meeting that covered issues ranging from needle exchange to energy use, the Board of Aldermen’s Human Services Committee focused Thursday night on cleaning up New Haven.

The committee met to debate resolutions approving a state grant for New Haven’s Syringe Exchange Harm Reduction Program and pushing the state of Connecticut to follow the city’s lead in looking into clean energy and fighting electric rate hikes.

Both resolutions passed unanimously, although some aldermen said they still wanted more information about the needle-exchange program. Committee members also added a feasibility study to the energy resolution.

Matthew Lewis, of the New Haven Public Health Department, told the committee the $487,527 grant to expand the program — which since 1990 has enabled injection drug-users to obtain clean needles in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-transmitted diseases — should be approved because it would allow the city to offer services during extended hours, possibly including weekends.

Lewis said the funding will also help reduce drug overdoses through better outreach. Last year, 300 Connecticut residents died of drug overdoses, he said.

Although aldermen passed the resolution unanimously, some committee members said they wanted to hear more concrete statistics from program directors about its effectiveness and the distribution of funds.

“It’s likely it will pass [before the full board],” Ward 28 Alderman Charles Blango said. “But we still have questions about how much of the grant goes to salaries and how much is actually going towards helping people on the streets.”

Lewis said the grant covers three years of additional funding.

The committee meeting then shifted focus to a resolution urging state government officials to work to reduce electricity rates, generate renewable energy and begin re-regulating the energy industry. These issues were originally brought before the Board by the activist group Fight the Hike, a Connecticut citizens group that lobbies governments at the state and municipal level about energy concerns.

Seven Connecticut residents, most of whom were affiliated with Fight the Hike, all said before the committee that the Board of Aldermen needs to pass the resolution in order to promote policy change on the state level.

Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said the citizens hope the New Haven government will lobby the state to reduce recent hikes in electric energy costs by considering re-regulation of the industry to better control rates.

“They failed at the state level and now they are coming to us so that we can understand the problem,” he said.

One of the founding members of Fight the Hike, New Haven resident Frank Panzarella, said he thinks the energy problem in Connecticut stems from state legislation that allowed deregulation of the utilities industry in 1998. According to statistics in the resolution, Connecticut has among the highest electric rates in the continental United States because of recent rate hikes.

Panzarella said he had been working to block legislation this past year that allowed for continued rate hikes, but he encountered resistance from state legislators. He said New Haven is the first city his group is targeting as part of a grassroots effort to spread awareness across Connecticut.

“It’s encouraging to come here to New Haven because at the state legislature we were treated so badly,” Panzarella said. “The public was treated quite rudely.”

The resolutions passed by the Human Services Committee will now head to the Board of Aldermen for further debate.

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