Underage drinking program losing funding

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LEWISTON — Good news: Since its launch in 2007, the Androscoggin County Alcohol Enforcement Program has done everything it was designed to do.

The number of stores selling booze to underage kids has gone down. So has binge drinking among youth, so has the number of them who have access to liquor, according to police.

The program has been a giant success.

Bad news: In June, federal funding for the county-wide program will run out. So far, there has been no sign that other sources of funding will save the program.

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“To be honest with you, it doesn’t look all that good right now,” said Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere. “They’ve looked high and low for new funding.”

The program has been so effective that its creator, Lewiston police Sgt. Rob Ullrich won a national award for his work. The strategies he put into place have become the standard for investigating and dealing with alcohol issues.

“It became a model program for other departments across Maine,” said Cpl. Tim Darnell, now the lead investigator with the team. “Right now, Androscoggin County has some of the lowest numbers as far as underage drinking and that kind of issue.”

Last year, the program organizers were given the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Award.

The numbers that matter most have dropped since the program got off the ground, some of them dramatically.

In 2002, statistics showed that 61 percent of youths in the county had access to alcohol — adults buying it for them, for instance. That was above the state average of 59 percent.

In 2008, as the enforcement team began busting up teen parties, handing out summonses and steering youths to a counseling program, the numbers took a dive. By the end of the year, the number of kids who could easily get alcohol fell to 47 percent. This time, the Androscoggin County figure was lower than the state average of 50 percent. It has stayed down since.

The team has an enormous partnership. Officers from departments like Auburn and Lisbon police and the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department have a role. So do organizations like Safe Schools, Healthy Androscoggin, the Office of Substance Abuse and Drug Free Communities.

In 2008, the teams swept across the area, using underage sources to find out which stores were selling liquor to minors. In all, 142 stores were checked. Of them, 77 percent passed the check — clerks there did not sell to minors.

Those numbers have improved, as well.

“On our last check in Auburn, we had 100 percent compliance,” Darnell said.

At the same time, only one store was found selling booze to minors. There were three in Lisbon.

The team issued 500 summonses in 2008, but Darnell stressed that is not where there work ends. The team steers some of the kids caught drinking to a diversion program, monthly sessions where they get counseled in matters of alcohol abuse. More than 100 kids between the ages of 12 and 18 went through the program in 2008.

In 2000, 12 percent of kids in the county admitted to binge drinking. In 2008, that number fell to 10 percent.

The enforcement program also works with others in the community. They advise bar and store owners on the legalities and best ways to thwart underage buy attempts. They work with Bates College on ways to keep drinking there from getting out of control.

“The Bates College kids aren’t walking around with keg cups like they used to,” Darnell said.

Darnell and his partners won’t know until late spring or early summer whether there will be additional funding to keep this program going.

But while one federal program appears to be winding down, another is stepping up funding to prevent juvenile drinking and drug abuse.

Through the Safe Schools Healthy Students program, Lewiston police will receive $16,000 this year, up from $11,000 last year.

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