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2016-08-10 / Front Page

Walton Residents Protest County Facility

By Abby Butler


Delaware County Commissioner of Public Works Wayne Reynolds addressed the crowd at the Walton town meeting on August 8, explaining the process that the county took to choose three sites for the proposed consolidated Delaware County Mental Health Facility - two of which are in Walton. 
Abby Butler/The Reporter Delaware County Commissioner of Public Works Wayne Reynolds addressed the crowd at the Walton town meeting on August 8, explaining the process that the county took to choose three sites for the proposed consolidated Delaware County Mental Health Facility - two of which are in Walton. Abby Butler/The Reporter WALTON - At the regular meeting of the Walton Town Council on August 8, approximately 35 people were in the audience to express their opinions on the location of the proposed integrated mental health facility that the county has decided to build. For almost an hour, residents protested the proposed placement of the facility on Fancher Ave. in the village – many would rather see the facility in a more industrial or commercial area.

Delaware County Director of Community Services Cindy Heaney and the person who oversees the mental health and substance abuse clinic, gave a history of the need for an integrated facility. According to Heaney, who has been in her current position for five years, the mental health clinic has been in Walton since the early 1970s and, at that point, all of the mental health, substance abuse and children’s services were together under one roof. Heaney explained that the substance abuse clinic moved to its current location in Hamden in 1985, in a leased space. In 1991, children and family services moved to their current location on Shepard Street in the village of Walton.

Heaney explained to the assembled audience that the current mental health building behind Delaware Valley Hospital does not have enough space and desperately needs to expand. Since the county oversees the services provided by the mental health and substance abuse clinics and children and family services, Heaney indicated that the county’s Community Services board had a statutory responsibility to find a proper space for those services and they began looking, in 2011, to enhance and expand the services provided while integrating all of them under one roof.

The community services board began looking in 2012 and 2013 for rental space that would be large enough to consolidate the services. Heaney indicated that some locations were identified but that none came to fruition. At that point, the county stepped in and took a more active role.

Heaney emphasized the outpatient nature of mental health and substance abuse services. “People don’t stay there. They are usually there for an hour,” she said. “There is a lot of stigma about mental health, substance abuse and alcoholism but many of these people are your friends, neighbors and relatives.”

Wayne Reynolds took over the presentation after Heaney, speaking for the county planning department. He explained that in 2014 the chairman of the county board and the mental health oversight committee charged the planning department with coordinating a site study for the proposed consolidated mental health facility. The county wanted to keep the facility in a relatively central location so that it would be easily accessible to the majority of the county’s residents.

A mental health subcommittee was established to directly oversee the site study and they held meetings and assessed locations through the beginning of 2016. According to Reynolds, Heaney applied for and received $229,000 in grant money to help pay for the site study and follow up preliminary design. The general process from 2014 to present has been to gather all the information that has been accumulated and to review it. The committee considered leasing or owning the building and expanding the public safety building.

Reynolds indicated that the committee initially wanted to allow a private company to develop a building and to lease it, hoping for a cheaper alternative to owning and building and new facility. It was quickly evident that leasing a building would present far more difficulties and entail additional expenses to the taxpayers, so the committee decided to pursue the idea of owning and constructing a new facility.

The committee turned their sites to the public safety building in Delhi, that was originally designed to be compatible with a second floor. In examining the codes and upgrades that would be required, the committee came to the realization that adding on to the public safety building would not be a financially feasible option.

At that point, the committee decided to do a site study to identify potential sites within the county that would satisfy the needs of a brand-new mental health facility. Reynolds explained that an initial criteria review was performed by the planning department using Geographical Information System (GIS) technology, which allowed the planning department to plug parameters into a computer and the computer would come up with possible site matches.

Reynolds explained that the committee was looking for a site with municipal sewer and water, out of the special flood hazard zone, not in wetlands, slope less than 15 percent, with parking, good access to utilities, internet access, on a municipal road, at least three acres and in close proximity to a hospital. The computer found at least 30 sites that met all of the above criteria and ground crews narrowed the site list down to ten by looking for obvious issues.

Closer evaluation of those ten sites further reduced the list to three, the three that are currently on the table. According to Reynolds, the three sites have not been disclosed to the board of supervisors for political and financial reasons. “We didn’t want developers coming in and snapping up parcels to make a fast dollar,” he explained.

Reynolds explained that the next step in the process is to hire a consultant that is qualified to evaluate the sites and needs of the mental health facility. The consultant will sit down with people from each current facility – mental health, substance abuse and child and family services - and will review what has been done to date, with the intention of choosing one of the three current sites. “It’s extremely important to get a facility and the board of supervisors will be choosing the site within the county,” Reynolds said.

Many in the audience wanted to voice their opinions and many expressed displeasure with the possibility of the new facility being located on Fancher Avenue. Julie Conrow did not believe that the residents’ opinions were being taken into consideration. Councilperson Luis Rodriguez- Betancourt explained that he believed that most people were concerned that the county would be able to put the facility wherever they wanted without input from residents. “Everyone wants to know if their opinion will matter at all,” he said.

Reynolds replied that the county may go with an entirely different site than the three that are currently on the table, but said the county can technically override a lower government body. “I don’t think that’s in the county’s intention,” he said. “It’s in their intention to work with whoever the host community might be and work with their concerns. It has to go somewhere and the county will ultimately make the decision where it will go.”

Reynolds further clarified that during the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process, public hearings will take place where residents will be able to voice their opinions. Supervisor Charlie Gregory further explained that, to save taxpayer money, only one site at a time will go through the SEQR process.

Residents suggested other alternative sites for the facility, including on Water Street next to Dollar General, the site of the old Miller Avenue school, the industrial park or on Delaware Street behind Cetta’s Tasty Swirl ice cream stand. Reynolds explained that some of the sites have been considered and some have not.

Town Code Enforcement Officer and Flood Commissioner Steve Dutcher explained that the Water Street site is slated to be part of a flood mitigation project and it is on the flood plain, thereby excluding it from consideration. Reynolds said that it was possible that the county would consider the other listed possible sites.

Dave Cornwell, a village resident, brought up some of his concerns about building the consolidated facility in Walton. “Of the 19 townships in Delaware County, Walton has the highest percentage of people on public assistance: 16.5 percent,” he said. “That percentage is just going to get bigger if this facility goes through in our township.”

Gregory brought the discussion to a close, saying that a decision has not yet been made and thanking people for their participation. He indicated that, if anyone wanted more information, a link to the presentation on the process so far is available on the town website, townofwalton.org.

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