SALISBURY – Despite a looming deadline to accept grant funding and proposed legislation that could derail efforts, officials in Wicomico County said this week they wanted more concrete plans for converting a vacant correctional facility into a drug treatment center before moving forward.
On Tuesday, officials with the Wicomico County Executive’s Office, the health department and the department of corrections met with the Wicomico County Council to discuss the future of the vacant Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit.
“We have had more questions than answers,” Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg said. “We didn’t come here tonight to ask you to approve anything. We want you to understand where we are, what we have and what we don’t have.”
Since last July, Wicomico County has spearheaded efforts to convert the shuttered state-owned correctional facility in Quantico into a treatment center. Assistant Director of Administration Weston Young said the idea is to provide a 23-hour facility for detox services, residential treatment and recovery housing.
“We learned there’s a significant gap in recovery services in the county,” he said.
Strausburg said the proposed center would offer comprehensive services to those seeking treatment.
“We are looking for people who voluntarily want to get themselves cleaned up,” he said. “I don’t have any appetite for court-ordered people being sent to this facility. That’s not the model. We want people who made the conscious decision that they want to get well.”
But Young said the county may need to move quickly with its plans. He explained cross-filled bills – House Bill 715 and Senate Bill 419 – in the Maryland General Assembly would require the commissioner of state corrections to operate a pre-release unit for women.
“It has several heavy-hitters signed to it, so we’re told its chance of passing is high …,” he said. “There is a chance if we don’t move on this it’s going to return as a pre-release unit for women and we will not have control over who comes into that facility or where they’re coming from.”
Young said the county is moving closer to a 20-year lease agreement with the state to operate a treatment center out of the correctional facility. While Poplar Hill is a state-owned facility, the county will act as a facilitator in seeking service providers and securing capital improvement grants.
“Ultimately, the lease and any grants would have to be approved by council,” Young said. “So it’s important you know where we are with this.”
To date, the county has received nearly $1 million in state funding to renovate the facility and a bid from one service provider to operate the center. Officials said taxpayer money would not be used to fund the project.
“Any additional renovations we would put on the service provider …,” Young said. “The operations would also be funded by the service provider.”
Councilman Joe Holloway questioned what would happen if the service provider were to leave the facility.
“Somebody would have to pick up the slack,” he said.
Strausburg said agreements with the state and service provider would include language that would protect the county.
“We won’t bring you a lease that doesn’t cover that,” he said.
Holloway also questioned the county’s ability to limit the facility to Eastern Shore residents. He said accepting state money could force the facility to take in residents from across the Bay Bridge.
“I don’t see any way to control this thing after it is implemented, if it is implemented,” he said.
Young shared his concerns.
“We would back away from this if it was forced that we would have to take non-Eastern Shore residents,” he said.
Councilman Marc Kilmer noted the issue was a deal breaker and something that should be addressed before moving forward.
“It seems like that legal issue is something we want to get nailed down before we spend any more time,” he said.
However, County Executive Bob Culver noted the county would soon need to decide if it will accept the nearly $1 million in state funding. He added state representatives would be willing to meet with the council at its next meeting and answer questions.
“I’d like to see them here,” Councilman Bill McCain said. “We keep referencing them and referring to them. I would love to see them sitting here so we can ask them directly.”
Councilman Larry Dodd agreed.
“I think they should have been here by now,” he said.