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Area liquor task force sees revival: Organizers want input from community members

The Mayor's Task Force on Substance Abuse is back in business, and it wants you. Officials who met last week to revive the task force are optimistic recent incidents of alcohol abuse will result in more input from local residents this time around...

The Mayor's Task Force on Substance Abuse is back in business, and it wants you.

Officials who met last week to revive the task force are optimistic recent incidents of alcohol abuse will result in more input from local residents this time around.

"There's enough community awareness now that maybe we can get more grass-roots support going, which maybe we didn't have before," said Mary Kay Hermann, director of Fargo-Cass Public Health.

Hermann and Fargo-Cass Health promotions manager Carol Grimm met Thursday with Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus and Robyn Litke, coordinator of the Red River Valley Safe Communities Coalition, to begin charting a new course for the task force.

"We're just looking at what kinds of things we can do differently and better to have a longer-lasting effect," Magnus said.

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The mayors of Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo and Dilworth created the Mayor's Task Force on Alcohol Abuse in 2000 in response to surveys showing area teens and college students were drinking more than in the past and in comparison to the rest of the country.

The task force was charged with reducing underage drinking in the metro area by 20 percent by July 2004. Members later swapped the word "alcohol" for "substance" in the name to reflect their broader mission.

Roughly 140 people from local law enforcement, schools, universities, health agencies and churches were organized into an executive committee and six subcommittees.

Public forums were held in each community, but attendance was low, said Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness. He said he has received positive feedback from the other mayors on reviving the task force or creating something similar.

"Now we have binge drinking, we have power hours, we had a death and a near death, and we have all these things occurring," he said. "We hope there will just be more interest on the part of the general public."

Furness was referring in part to Jason Reinhardt of Fargo, who died of alcohol poisoning on March 15, his 21st birthday.

The task force's most tangible accomplishment was a 32-page application for roughly $300,000 in federal funding from the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, part of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The project had three overall goals:

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E To reduce underage drinking by 20 percent by July 2004 and encourage more appropriate drinking by those over age 21

E To significantly reduce the prevalence of other substance use among youth in the community

E To reduce the prevalence of risk behaviors that accompany substance use, such as suicide attempts, delinquency, sexual activity and car crashes.

'Fell by the wayside'

The application was submitted in June 2001 and sponsored by Dakota Medical Foundation.

However, it was denied because it arrived late after being sent by regular mail instead of priority mail, task force coordinator Arlette Preston said.

Members submitted a scaled-back version a year later, this time sponsored by Fargo-Cass Public Health. However, it too was denied, leaving a sour taste in the collective mouth of the task force.

"We spent a lot of time and effort on the grant, and then we were never even formally notified," said North Dakota State University professor Kevin Thompson, who was chairman of the task force.

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With no funding, the task force and its proposal "kind of fell by the wayside," Preston said.

"The unfortunate part of that is when it got dropped, it didn't go back as a various slate of recommendations to the city commission," she said.

Seeking public input

Those trying to revive the task force say some of the strategies identified to curb youth drinking are still valid.

One in particular, to create a youth advisory group, surfaced again during last week's meeting.

"That's probably one of our biggest failings in the past, is not having enough young people involved in planning and putting together some things that might have a greater impact on their age group," Magnus said.

The task force also wants a meeting with the liquor industry "to see what their plan is to address this," Grimm said. Plans also are in the works to resubmit the funding proposal, she said.

However, Magnus said the task force must remain flexible, regardless of funding.

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"I just don't want that to become a reason why we have to wait or delay doing things at the local level," he said. "Hopefully, the dollars will follow as we build a track record, even if they're small successes."

The police chief said he's had "tremendous" response to his plea to the public Monday to step up efforts to protect young people from alcohol abuse.

"That's great, but now we've got to follow that up with those same people saying, 'I'm willing to be involved,' " he said.

Anyone interested in being part of the task force may call Grimm at (701) 241-8575.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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