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Paul Feely's City Hall: Are out-of-town addicts getting a free Lyft in the Queen City?

By PAUL FEELY
February 11. 2018 3:42PM
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A vote last week by aldermen to approve using $10,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to pay for the use of a Lyft concierge service to transport folks who come into Safe Station to Granite Pathways on Chestnut Street sparked an interesting email exchange between board members the following day.

Prior to the vote, Alderman At-Large Dan O'Neil questioned whether city block grant funds could be used to pay for Lyft rides for non-city residents who come into Safe Station, saying "It's a great idea. I'm just not sure it's legal." Following the meeting,Mayor Joyce Craig's policy director, Lauren Smith, confirmed with city planner Leon LeFreniere that the CDBG funds could be used to pay for rides for non-city residents, calling it a "policy decision."

On Wednesday, O'Neil sent an email to fellow aldermen, Craig, and several department heads in which he continued to question the use of the funds.

"I am speaking for myself, but I am done with the City of Manchester being the savior for other communities in the state and Manchester shouldering the financial burden of paying for these services when people are sent to Manchester from other communities," wrote O'Neil. "We have all heard stories of municipal government or nonprofits from outside of Manchester bringing people to Manchester Safe Station in police cars, paying cabs or the nonprofits driving them here. We get little or no financial support from the federal government, state government or other municipalities in this effort. We have a challenging enough time to provide theses services for our own citizens as well as our homeless population."

Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart suggested a cost study for an "average" Safe Station visit - including personnel time, cost of Narcan, Lyft transportation costs, etc. - be performed.

"Then invoice the surrounding municipalities on a monthly basis for all of their respective residents who utilize Safe Station, but especially those who are brought here in police cruisers or in some other 'official' municipal capacity," wrote Stewart. "Perhaps it's not worth the staff time it would take to document, prepare, and mail such invoices, but I do agree that other municipalities are getting a free ride here (pun intended)."

Stewart believes when other municipalities send people to Manchester's Safe Station, the city's "reputation suffers for being known as the state's Opioid HQ while many of the state's smaller municipalities get to pretend they are not affected by this crisis and thus accrue benefit at our expense, be it financial or from lack of stigma."

"While I certainly would never want to deny life-saving services to anyone, I do think we should look at ways to come to some sort of financial arrangement with the sending towns," wrote Stewart.

At least one alderman incorrectly suggested the city would no longer accept out-of-town intakes, prompting Fire Chief Dan Goonan to set the record straight.

"Manchester fire stations will continue to be open to anyone, regardless of where they reside, who is seeking help for substance abuse disorder," said Goonan. "The stations will remain an access point to those seeking help and will be available 24 hours a day. The fire department will not turn anyone away."

Last Thursday, Craig said she felt O'Neil's concerns were directed at the new Lyft ride component of Safe Station.

"I think it was focused on people coming in from outside of Manchester," said Craig. "We certainly recognize that's an issue, and we want to be able to service people in New Hampshire and recognize that part of the issue that Serenity Place had was that they were overwhelmed with people. The fire stations are going to continue serving people from no matter where they come from, but we also need to educate people on the different access points."

Alderman At-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur said he enjoyed the post-meeting exchanges.

"All I can say is that I am extremely pleased the more left leaning Democrats on the board and our liberal mayor have finally woken up to the costs of taking care of all these people outside of Manchester during this opioid crisis," said Levasseur.

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Roughly half a dozen people took part in last week's potty parade and rally in downtown Manchester, culminating with another plea from organizer Glenn Ouellette to open the public bathrooms at Veterans Park.

Last month, members of an aldermanic committee received a report that estimates the cost of opening the public restrooms could exceed $100,000. On Tuesday, Ouellette once again challenged those estimates during a passionate speech before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

"Why is it that at the Dorrs Pond bathroom it cost $50,000 for an attendant, can you answer the public why it would cost $105,000, for a lot less hours at Veterans Park? Those are fudged numbers," said Ouellette, who then warned aldermen a letter from the Centers for Disease Control should arrive in two weeks notifying them of conditions observed in cities around the country where public bathrooms have been closed.

"It's not healthy," warned Ouellette. "I'm sick and tired of being told that it's the homeless that are keeping us from doing this when the taxpayers are paying for these bathrooms. There are people who, every single day, are taking a bus and sometimes they need a bathroom."

Aldermen voted to take Ouellette's comments under advisement.

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A van crashed into and destroyed the storefront of MS Market at 186 Sagamore St. in December, marking the fourth time the store has been hit by a vehicle in the last 10 years.

Ever since, longtime store owner Syed 'Tai' Tahir has been collecting signatures on a petition requesting the city look at installing a traffic light at Maple and Sagamore streets. The petition - signed by more than 300 customers and neighbors - was presented to members of the Aldermanic Committee on Public Safety, Health and Traffic last week.

Board members voted to direct the Public Works department to conduct a traffic study to determine if a signal is warranted.

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Last week's special meeting of the school board's Building and Sites Committee - devoted to a discussion on the plan for moving the district offices to West High School, where organizers promise members of the public and school officials will be allowed to ask questions about the proposal - was canceled due to snow. The meeting has been rescheduled for Feb. 20 at 5:30 p.m. in the West High Library, preceded by a 15 minute tour by West High Principal Rick Dichard of the areas impacted by the relocation. A presentation on plans for the move by Fred Matuszewski of CMK Architects will be followed by a town-hall style meeting.

The agenda for the meeting will feature another interesting item - a request for approval to build a large temporary training structure at Manchester School of Technology for use by the Fire Science Program.

The structure will consist of two 20 ft. x 8 ft. metal storage containers, placed parallel to each other with an 8-foot gap between them.

The containers will serve as the base of the training prop, and a roof structure will be built to span both containers.

Officials are seeking approval to use funds from a Perkins Grant - $2,817 for materials and $3,500 for the storage containers. All construction would be supervised by an MST carpentry instructor, with work done by insured members of the Manchester Fire Department who hold secondary jobs in construction.

All combustible props and material will be supplied by the New Hampshire Fire Academy.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.


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