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The location of a proposed needle exchange counseling program on the city's East Side became the major issue at a community information meeting on the program Thursday.

The program is designed to check the spread of AIDS among drug addicts by providing them with clean needles and counseling about the disease.

Columbus Hospital on the West Side is seeking state funds to operate the program at its Niagara Street facility.

The Geneva B. Scruggs Community Health Care Center on Kensington Avenue has agreed to help educate East Side residents about the program and help with selection of a possible facility on the city's East Side.

"We have always gone to the community first. We do not do business by sneaking in the community and doing something," Michael C. Ezie, executive director of the Scruggs Center, told about 30 residents at the meeting in Tabernacle Church of God and Christ.

However, Ellicott Council Member James W. Pitts said health planners trying to bring such programs into the community must respect the will of the community when it comes to site selection.

Pitts made his remarks after Ezie and Mark Lucas, outreach coordinator for the Scruggs Center, would not categorically rule out St. Augustine's Center at 1001 Jefferson Ave., near Best Street, as a possible site for the program.

"It's my opinion that it should be done in a clinical setting," Pitts said. "If you're talking about an experiment, you shouldn't be talking about putting it on a street corner in a storefront.

"If you're talking about that, you're talking about legalizing drugs. You have to understand that there are certain areas where it's not going to be acceptable."

He said the St. Augustine's Center site would not be acceptable because it's near the early childhood center under construction at Best and Jefferson. He said an initial proposal also suggested locating the facility in the Towne Gardens Plaza, which he said would have hurt redevelopment efforts there.

Ezie said his center has not supported or suggested any site. Pitts conceded that the sites mentioned were in an early application that had been revised.

Nevertheless, the site issue dominated what had started as an informational meeting on what the program is and how it operates. The meeting was organized by the Community Action Information Center, after some members of that group heard about the West Side program.

"You're not playing Monopoly here, you're playing with people lives," said Derrick Revies, a resident and supporter of the program. "We need (the program) to save people's lives."

Ezie said a task force, composed of various groups, including the health center, would bring in the mayor and police chief of New Haven, Conn., perhaps next month to talk to residents about how the program has worked there.

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