MILTON — Beginning in January, the Milton Police Department will work collaboratively with community mental health specialists to respond to a variety of incidents in town.

After almost a year of deliberation, the Milton selectboard signed a resolution Oct. 19 that allows the town to enter into a contract with the Howard Center’s Community Outreach program.

How will the program help Milton?

A community mental health specialist, assigned to Milton, will “provide a timely response in collaboration with local law enforcement to individuals with social service needs and problematic behaviors that are non-criminal and often based on or related to the individual’s mental health issues or substance abuse,” according to the resolution.

After the selectboard listened to a presentation from the Howard Center at an Aug. 17 meeting, Police Chief Stephen Laroche voiced his support for the program.

“I have been proactive in getting the program to Milton for the last two years, since I became chief,” Laroche said. “This is our greatest need.”

The Community Outreach Program will take a load off the back of the Milton Police Department, allowing it to be further focused on emergency response and criminal behavior.

Laroche told the Independent that so far in 2020, the department has responded to 180 calls related to mental health. In 2019, the department responded to 209 calls and in 2018, 171.

A specialist would be on call 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday to aid police officers.

Depending on the situation, a specialist may connect individuals with mental health, transportation or housing services, and then provide the necessary follow-ups and check-ins that a police officer can not.

“I see great value added by having this person on deck, doing this work,” Vice Chair Michael Morgan said. “I fully support it.”

How is it being paid for?

The contract with the Howard Center is for 18 months, from January 1, 2021 to June 30 2022. The total cost is $52,276.

Town Manager Don Turner said the funding will come from currently unused funds in the public safety and police budgets.

“We have the money to pay for this because we have a vacant position in the police department,” Turner said. “That’s what’s paying for this. It’s not like we fired someone or we aren’t hiring.”

He said the pandemic has made it difficult for new officers to attend the training necessary to be hired by the department, making the position difficult to fill for the foreseeable future.

Though board member Brenda Steady approves of the program, she was the only member to vote “no” on the partnership. She said it was her fiscal responsibility to do so.

“How can we commit funds that the taxpayers haven’t voted on?” she asked. “I’m not comfortable with that.”

Turner said he was confident he could find money within the police and public safety budgets that were already approved by voters. The Milton Police Department’s budget, which is over $2 million, is a quarter of the total town budget.

"This isn't considered defunding the police department, right?" Steady asked. 

Her fellow board members responded with a chorus of "no." 

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