Wicomico session on opioid center proposal is April 16

The Wicomico County Council will hold a public session April 16 to discuss a proposal about which they are clearly skeptical — an opioid treatment center that would be located on the former site of the Poplar Hill Pre-Release Center in Quantico.

In an at-times testy encounter last week with top state officials appointed to coordinate opioid crisis prevention efforts statewide, the county’s legislative branch objected to being rushed into a deal that would see the county control the facility and wondered aloud why the state couldn’t just embrace the task on its own.

Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center Director Steve Schuh appeared before the council on March 19 to assuage concerns that had been building among the council members, who have said they have been left out of the planning processes.

The MOOCC coordinates anti-opioid actions across various levels of government and analyzes data on drug use and deaths. Schuh, a former Anne Arundel County Executive and state delegate, was appointed to his post in December by Gov. Larry Hogan.

Schuh is considered a rising star in state Republican politics; his appointment was seen as a signal that Hogan is demanding improved progress in the state’s battle with opioid addiction and overdoses.

For Hogan and Schuh, Wicomico’s development of treatment and recovery center is critical to their task. The administration has offered the county $972,684 to renovate Poplar Hill and offer a center with 20 beds for drug treatment patients.

The Poplar Hill debate has been percolating since July, not long after the state Division of Correction closed the decades-old prison facility.

County health officials have long said they need a center that is nearby and immediate, and can accommodate drug victims seeking immediate help.

Weston Young, the county’s Deputy Director of Administration, told the council that of the nearly $1 million, about $272,000 would be used for mechanical and plumbing renovations, $500,000 would be used for HVAC installation and $200,000 would go to dormitory-area improvements.

The all-male facility is currently configured with open rooms that contain bunk beds. Private rooms would be built instead.

Schuh said the facility would offer a full spectrum of services. “It meets with the priorities the governor has set,” he said. “Rural areas have unique challenges. The state has an asset that is lying fallow. It would be very cost efficient to put it back into use.”

The state owns the land, but would lease it to the county for $1 per year. The county would have a 20-year lease with two five-year renewal options. The state would operate the facility’s existing water treatment plant that outflows into Quantico Creek.

County officials would not manage the facility. A private company would become the vendor, collecting fees from patients’ insurance and Medicaid, and receiving federal grants and loans.

Schuh was asked why he and the governor want the county – instead of state health officials – to oversee the facility.

“We generally don’t act as the provider of services,” Schuh replied. “We work with the local jurisdictions and other local entities to provide services through the grant-making process in this case with a companion lease that gives you local control over the facility. It’s consistent with our statewide strategy of working with local jurisdictions to deliver local services.”

The MOOCC director was also sure to compliment county Health Officer Lori Brewster and Emergency Services Director David Shipley, “who have set a high standard of performance, which we appreciate.”

Schuh said the state needs to know the county’s decision soon – if Wicomico says no, it wants to repurpose those dollars to other counties. “We will lose the money on June 30,” Schuh said. “We’ll need to find others who will take it.

“It would just be a shame to lose a million dollars to delay the cost of a really good project,” he said. “We look at this as a partnership with you.”

County Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg warned council members that legislation is now working its way through the General Assembly that calls for placing two Division of Correction pre-release centers in the state that would be occupied by women inmates. He suggested the absence of a plan for Poplar Hill would make that an easy option for state prison officials.

“We’re going to get a pre-release center there,” Strausburg predicted.

Seeming to sense the council’s overall hesitancy, Strausburg issued a firm declaration.

“We’re presenting you with an opportunity,” he said. “If you care not to take advantage of it, so be it.

“This is very simple in my mind. If the council doesn’t want to accept the million dollars, if the council doesn’t want to take a progressive step toward (helping solve) a very serious issue in this community, so be it.”

Councilman Marc Kilmer, whose constituency surrounds the Poplar Hill site, said the plan is rushed, the decision deadline is too quick and the public has yet to be heard.

“I’m concerned we’re accepting (the state) money for this without seeing a final plan,” he said. “It’s going to cost more than a million dollars — all of us who have been out there have seen that. The rush of this is what’s given me a little bit of heartburn.”

Councilman Bill McCain said he has received calls from constituents who back the center.

“It’s an opportunity to do something about a major epidemic we have here on the Shore,” he said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

While Wicomico is a state leader in helping stem opioid overdoses and deaths, some 140 of the more than 2,000 opioid-related fatalities in 2017 occurred on the Eastern Shore.

Meanwhile on Monday, the Wicomico County Health Department announced it has received state opioid response grant funding to implement and operate a “Safe Station” location within the county.

A Safe Station is an identified location where individuals seeking treatment for an addiction can visit anytime, day or night, to find assistance in gaining access to care.

Traditionally, a Safe Station is located within a police or fire department, but Wicomico County will be taking a unique approach by basing it at the Recovery Resource Center in Salisbury.

“We are looking forward to providing this much needed service in an effort to remove barriers that may keep people from seeking treatment,” said RRC Director Curtis Paul.

A date for full operations has not yet been determined.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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