Red Deer city council wants province to pay entire clean-up cost for needle debris

Council’s resolution will hopefully be supported by other municipalities at next AUMA meeting

Inundated by public complaints about needle debris, Red Deer city councillors will be calling on all Alberta municipalities to help make the provincial government accountable for the cleanup.

Since the province is inadvertently creating the used needle debris problem for communities, it needs to do something about it, said Mayor Tara Veer.

“This issue has been incredibly frustrating” — causing safety issues for residents and mounting costs for taxpayers as municipalities have to shoulder most of the cleanup costs, Veer added.

Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday that will be introduced at the next Alberta Urban Municipalities Association meeting in September.

The resolution holds the Alberta government responsible for the distribution of “millions of needles” through various harm-reduction agencies in response to the province’s drug addiction crisis.

Because many of these used needles are later thrown away by drug addicts into alleyways and parks, endangering public safety, the government needs to provide — and fully pay for — an ongoing strategy for the clean up of the dangerous debris that’s littering municipalities, the resolution states.

“Municipalities are being increasingly burdened by the rising costs of needle debris clean up, and many citizens are deeply concerned for their health and safety.”

All city councillors spoke of repeatedly hearing local complaints about needle debris.

Coun. Vesna Higham wanted the resolution to clearly hold the province responsible for the needle distribution that’s done by groups aiming to curb the spread of hepatitis and AIDS.

She said many local residents mistakenly believe it’s municipalities that are organizing the free dispersal of needles to drug addicts, when it is actually Alberta Health.

Higham is among those who believe it would make more sense to have a needle exchange program, instead of giving out clean needles in packages of 10 or 12, and then expecting addicted people to put their used needles in drop-off dispensers.

This is not happening. Council was told 529,863 needles were distributed in central Alberta in 2015-16, with approximately a third of these not getting returned to agencies (although some may be dropped off at pharmacies, which are not tracked).

Veer believes the AUMA resolution will likely be supported by municipalities across Alberta, since all are affected to varying degrees by the needle debris problem.

While the province responded to Red Deer city council’s previous complaints about the cost of clean up by eventually giving the city $80,000 a year, councillors agreed this isn’t nearly enough.

Veer said the actual costs are hard to tally, as they are spread over city staff. Some workers, for example, pick up needles while cleaning up rough sleeper camps.

She noted the downtown business association also has to help with clean up — and so do ambulance workers, who are occasionally called to deal with it.

She said this is the least efficient use of their time.

Long-time downtown businesswoman Lorna Watkinson-Zimmer agrees the province should be paying more to clean up needle debris.

“It’s not a municipal issue,” said Watkinson-Zimmer, a former city councillor. “It’s a health issue and it should be labelled as such.”

Watkinson-Zimmer has heard the needle debris problem is particularly bad for businesses located a few blocks north of her store, Comforts the Sole, on Little Gaetz Avenue.

“I just ache for them. I know it’s just a constant thing for them.”

One of those businesses was Games Music, which was at 5209 Gaetz Ave. for 30 years before moving recently to the former Sunworks location on Ross Street.

Owner Tony Redelback said one reason he moved was because he was fed up with all of the drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes who lingered in the area and left their messes.

Redelback is skeptical that throwing millions of dollars more at cleanup efforts and other initiatives will help.

“I really don’t think more money is going to solve the issue,” he said.

A better approach is requiring drug users to return all of the needles they are given before they get new ones, he added.

He’s mostly worried about the needles that turn up in parks, playgrounds and other green areas. The 53-year-old grew up in Red Deer and never had to worry, as a child, about stumbling across a needle in a park.

Last week, Reagan Stokes, who owns Reagan’s Dog Zone, at 4820 47th Ave., said she’s planning to move from the downtown, where she has been in business for 18 years, at the end of this month.

Stokes said she has found needle debris, “dope baggies” and drug paraphernalia all over her neighbourhood. On May 7, she found a pile of her needles behind her business.

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