Mayor James Fiorentini refuses to immediately hire a mental health counselor to accompany Haverhill police officers as they deal with people in emotional distress who may harm themselves or others.
That refusal has some city councilors angry. They say the mental health professional is needed now for reasons that include a rise in deaths and drug abuse during the pandemic.
Police Chief Alan DeNaro asked for the counselor. His request came as high-profile incidents involving mental health and drug abuse police calls happen across the country — sometimes resulting in violence and even death.
Involving mental health professionals on police calls is something the public has demanded from police and governmental officials, DeNaro has said. A counselor could ease tense situations that officers often encounter, he said.
“They (counselors) are not in uniform and they are trained in diffusing and help a lot,” he said, giving examples of a professional providing counseling to young people who run away from home, and talking to victims of domestic violence and other people in distress.
DeNaro proposed Haverhill contract with a counselor to ride with officers on calls where the counselor could help ease a stressful situation. The City Council supported the request in December and sent it to the mayor. He told councilors last week that he will not immediately allow the hiring, but that the possibility of it happening must wait until upcoming city budget discussions.
Fiorentini said the request will be considered “along with many other great requests.”
“I happen to like this one and I’m inclined to do it, but let’s see what our revenues are and let’s see what the other requests are,” he said.
The mayor’s decision to delay the hiring angered two city councilors.
Councilor Michael McGonagle said there is an immediate need for a counselor to assist on police calls because “suicides are up, deaths are up and drug abuse is up because of COVID.”
“This is something the community could use now,” McGonagle said to the mayor. “It’s not a big ask ... this needs to happen.”
McGonagle said he would withdraw one of his budget requests in exchange for hiring the counselor.
“I’ll take one of my asks off the table if you get this done for the people in the community who are struggling with drug addiction,” he said.
Councilor Timothy Jordan said he was frustrated at the delay after the council unanimously agreed in December to support the police chief’s request.
“I don’t know why we’re waiting,” Jordan said. “We should be having it (a mental health counselor) on the streets now, helping out the Police Department and helping our citizens that need this.’’
He told the mayor it would cost only $25,000 to hire a counselor for the remainder of this fiscal year, which runs until the end of July, and urged Fiorentini to fund the position.
“You don’t just shoot from the hips or pull items out of the air,” Fiorentini responded. “I’m not opposed to this, but we have to see what the revenue will be and what the requests are from the various departments.”
DeNaro has said it would cost about $75,000 per year to hire a licensed clinical social worker to help police on a contract basis.
Calling it a “new and exciting position” for his department, DeNaro said he’s been speaking with police departments across the country about how they use counselors.
“At some point we to need to decide as a community if it’s going to be funded and when it’s going to be funded,” he said.
Fiorentini pointed out that Council President Melinda Barrett has already submitted about $2.5 million in budget requests and that he expects to receive more requests from the council, including for the fire, police and school departments, placing burdens on the next city budget.
Fiorentini said the city’s sources of revenue, such as parking receipts and liquor license receipts, are down as is meals tax revenue. Meanwhile, charges to the city have increased, including payments for waste removal and disposal, making the next budget a difficult one.
McGonagle asked the mayor to begin a search for mental health counselor so the city will have a person in mind once funding is approved.
“I’m not fighting you on this,’’ Fiorentini said. “I think this is a good idea.”
Following the meeting, the mayor said it would be fiscally irresponsible to spend the money for the hiring “until we know if we can afford to do so.”
“Before we commit to new items, we need to pause, check our revenue estimates and make certain we continue to do the things we are already doing,” he said. “Strict fiscal discipline has brought us to this point. We cannot abandon that now.”