AUBURN — City councilors may want a police-led effort to focus on revitalizing the poorest areas of the city to have a narrower focus, they said Monday.

“We can’t do it all at once,” Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said. “We have to pick one area and we need the schools to work with us and then we can move forward.”

Councilors on Monday reviewed a proposed Neighborhood Revitalization Unit that would combine efforts from multiple city departments, such as Planning, Code Enforcement, Fire and Social Services.

“The key piece to this strategy is going to be communication between all city departments, so we can bring the focus effort to our target areas,” Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen said.

Moen and Chief Phil Crowell first presented the idea to councilors at the Jan. 24 meeting, and staff will continue developing the idea. It will likely come back during council budget discussions for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

According to plans, officers from the unit would be more visibly devoted to three areas of the city — New Auburn, downtown and the Hampshire Street area. On one hand, they’d be more familiar to residents there. On the other hand, they’d be able to recognize non-police issues that may lead to crime — deteriorating buildings and absentee landlords — and bring in staff from other departments to help.

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Those are three of the city’s Community Development Block Grant areas that receive special funding from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. They are also where 33 percent of the Police Department’s calls for service come from, as well as 72 percent of the Planning Department’s code compliance complaints.

“The PD is responding to calls for service in some areas, and Code Enforcement is responding to code issues,” Deputy Planning Director Eric Cousens said. “What we have found is often they are in the same buildings.”

Cousens said there have been instances where poorer tenants were having difficulty paying rent, leaving a landlord little money to make code-compliant repairs. The building deteriorates and the rent the landlord can demand decreases. In the end, criminals and drug dealers end up calling the place home.

“This program increases our collaboration so that when we have that perfect negative storm of a poorly maintained building with a landlord allowing crimes to be committed and failing to evict tenants, we can work together and complement each other,” he said.

That could mean helping the landlord improve the building’s condition and finding better, more consistent tenants.

LaBonte suggested the effort start in the Hampshire Street area and the neighborhood surrounding Washburn Elementary School.

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“Right now, it’s quasi citywide, quasi three areas,” LaBonte said. “Right now, I would not say this program has a focus. I think it’s very broad. You ought to pick one area, model it and spend your time (on it).”

Councilor Grady Burns said he has concerns about involving police in social services and housing issues.

“I don’t want this program to be a tool in which we target a community and say, ‘You are the problem. We will fix you,'” Burns said. “I am hesitant about having such a heavy police-driven presence in what is already a volatile situation. I’m not sure that will get us to where we want to be.”

The program would be funded with $83,985 from the existing Police Department budget and $61,475 from the drug forfeitures fund. A portion of the city’s block grant money could be allocated to this program in coming years, Moen said.

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