Decision To Convert Former Correctional Facility To Recovery Center Delayed

SALISBURY – Citing the need for additional information and public input, officials in Wicomico County last week opted to table a vote on accepting a $972,000 state grant to convert a shuttered correctional facility into a drug treatment and recovery center.

Last Tuesday, the Wicomico County Council agreed to table a resolution to accept grant funding in the amount of $972,684, which would be used to repurpose the Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit in Quantico into a substance use treatment and recovery center.

Since last July, Wicomico County has spearheaded efforts to convert the shuttered, state-owned correctional facility into a treatment and recovery center. The idea is to provide a 23-hour facility for detox services, residential treatment and recovery housing.

“There isn’t currently a 24-7 ability to provide treatment and services to those who need it,” said Weston Young, the county’s assistant director of administration.

To date, the county has received nearly $1 million in state funding to renovate the facility, but council members this week said they were hesitant to accept the grant until their questions, and the public’s concerns, were addressed.

“It’s almost like we are doing this backwards,” Councilman Marc Kilmer said. “We are accepting this money to start work without a final plan. The rush of this has given me some heartburn.”

Young said state officials from the Opioid Operational Command Center (OOCC) were requesting the council accept the grant before the March 31 deadline.

“This money that is available now is good until the end of June 2019,” he said. “So, the Opioid Command Center needs to know if we plan to use this money this year or if can they repurpose it to one of their other projects they have throughout the state.”

Steve Schuh, executive director of OOCC, told the council his office supported the proposed treatment and recovery center, but needed to know the county’s decision.

“I know it sounds a little bit like we are making our problem your problem, but it would be a shame to lose $1 million to defray the cost of a really good project,” he said. “We look at this as a partnership with you.”

Schuh noted that approximately 140 of the more than 2,000 opioid-related fatalities in 2017 occurred on the Eastern Shore.

“Six of the nine shore counties are far above the Maryland average in terms of per capita rates of fatalities,” he said. “The need for this type of facility is certainly here in this part of Maryland.”

Barbara Bazron, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Health, agreed.

“We really have to curb the number of deaths that are occurring due to the opioid epidemic,” she said. “You’ve got to get people into care, and you also have to keep them in recovery. And the spectrum of services that will be offered here will meet that objective.”

Young said the grant, if approved, would aid in the county’s efforts to convert the facility into a functional treatment and recovery center. Approximately $500,000 would be used for HVAC improvements, $272,000 would be used for mechanical and plumbing upgrades and the remainder would be used to renovate the existing dormitories.

“We will be taking what were large dorms … and creating private rooms,” he said.

While Young noted the funding opportunities available to renovate the facility, members of the council shared their concerns regarding the overall plan for the treatment and recovery center.

“It’s like putting the cart before the horse,” Councilman Larry Dodd said.

Councilman Joe Holloway said he was concerned the county would have no ability to limit the facility to Eastern Shore residents if it accepted state funding.

“Will we be moving people from out of the area to this facility?” he said.

While the facility would have to remain accessible to all state residents, Schuh said it would not be a problem.

“I don’t think you’ll have any problem filling those beds with your friends and neighbors here on the shore,” he said. “How the facility operates is how you and your vendor choose to market it. Your marketing will focus on residents of the Eastern Shore.”

Wayne Strausburg, the county’s director of administration, warned the council it needed to move quickly with its decision. He explained proposed legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that would require the commissioner of state corrections to operate pre-release units for women could jeopardize plans.

“We have a pre-release facility sitting there vacant,” he said, “and if you want a pre-release facility in Wicomico County, so be it.”

Council President John Cannon, however, said plans for the facility needed to be vetted properly.

“We’ve had one work session as a county council and we haven’t had any public hearings at all in reference to this topic, which is a concern,” he said. “It’s not us versus them. It’s making sure the proper process will be followed with this.”

Kilmer said he and his constituents wanted more information on the proposed treatment center.

“Their fears aren’t being calmed with information, and our questions haven’t been answered about what this would be,” he said.

But Councilman Bill McCain disagreed and noted constituents who were in favor of the proposed facility.

“We’ve got a choice,” he said, “it being used for something that is going to help us here on the Lower Shore, or it’s going to end up being another pre-release facility again … I don’t want to see us get in the way of progress here.”

Despite their support for tackling the opioid epidemic, members of the council said they wanted more information presented to the public.

“I would certainly like to see this vetted with the public so we know where we stand,” Cannon said. “They are going to be impacted by this.”

After further discussion, Schuh agreed to push the deadline for accepting the grant to the council’s second meeting in April. The council also voted 7-0 to table the vote to April 16 in an effort to reach out to the community.

“We can’t jump at everything because it’s presented as an opportunity,” Kilmer said.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.