ALBANY – Sen. Patrick Gallivan and Assemblyman Michael Kearns say they will ask their colleagues to override Gov. Andrew Cuomo's veto of a bill that would have kept the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center operating in West Seneca.
Cuomo late Wednesday vetoed the legislation and said the state will proceed with opening a replacement facility in Buffalo.
In a written explanation released this morning, Cuomo said the West Seneca site is in need of costly repairs and that the state already spent $5.1 million on a future psychiatric facility site in Buffalo that will serve both adults and children in separate facilities.
Gallivan, an Elma Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate, called the veto "ill-informed and shameful.'' He said he will ask his legislative colleagues to consider overriding Cuomo's action – a move the Legislature has not taken since Cuomo took office in 2011.
"I'm terribly disappointed that the governor and (mental health) commissioner have ignored the Legislature and the people of Western New York as they have essentially said that our children deserve less than the best,'' Gallivan said in a statement this morning.
Kearns, D-Buffalo, said he delivered his request for a special session to override the veto to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie Thursday morning.
"We don’t need hindsight to see that moving this facility, to the same campus as adult psychiatric patients, downtown in a busy urban environment, will be a colossal mistake and detrimental to the health and well being of children seeking these valuable services," Kearns said in a statement.
Cuomo said no children currently being served at the West Seneca site will be moved to the new Buffalo facility, which is not due to be completed for two years.
"All children being served at the West Seneca facility will continue to receive services at the facility until they are discharged,'' Cuomo wrote.
The governor said the new facility will be better located to serve more psychiatric patients in Western New York, including families in Buffalo who do not have access to a car. He said no staff layoffs will result from the move.
The bill was passed unanimously by both houses of the Legislature last June. A veto override attempt, though, is a stretch given how lawmakers in the majority in both houses have not wanted to create such open warfare with Cuomo. Moreover, it would require action by December 31, and no special session is planned and a single bill, like the West Seneca legislation, would not be enough to drive the Legislature into an end-of-year session. A new 2018 session starts January 3.
"We take Senator Gallivan’s request very seriously, and will work in consultation with him and the other members of the Senate to determine the best possible path forward,'' said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.
In the Assembly, there is even less motivation to move on Kearns' request: he is leaving his Assembly post in several weeks to become Erie County Clerk and the South Buffalo lawmaker was on the outs with his Democratic colleagues for most of the years he served in Albany.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie gave no indication his house will be moving to override the Cuomo veto. "We will be reviewing the matter,'' said Michael Whyland, a Heastie spokesman.
A defiant Cuomo noted the arguments raised against the move – "none of which have merit,'' he said. Cuomo dismissed concerns that children could be "co-mingled" with adults at the new Buffalo facility, insisting design plans will prevent that.
"Despite these substantial, tangible benefits, the Legislature advanced this bill, which effectively restricts access to mental health care in Western New York, reduces investments in community based services and is inconsistent with recent agreements negotiated with the Legislature during the annual budget discussions,'' Cuomo wrote in the veto message.
He said he could not support a bill that would have "such a negative impact" on children and families said the Legislature's plan "compromises four years of work" by the state on the Buffalo facility that he said will lead to better mental health care offerings for the region.
The veto occurred after his mental health commissioner, Dr. Ann Sullivan, visited The Buffalo News editorial board Wednesday morning and laid out the Cuomo administration’s case for moving the West Seneca facility.
Sullivan, head of the Office of Mental Health, said the move would allow the state to save millions of dollars and redirect that money toward other local services geared toward treating children in their own communities rather than a hospital setting.
"I think this is an opportunity, really, to use precious dollars to build up community-based services while still providing needed inpatient services in a really therapeutic, good environment for our kids," she said in a meeting with the Buffalo News Editorial Board.
As a "good faith" gesture, the state has already begun providing $1.7 million worth of those services, such as its "mobile integration team" in which clinical experts visit families and children in schools and homes in several counties, Sullivan said. Closing the West Seneca campus would allow the state to expand that investment to $3.2 million, she said.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, and Assemblyman Michael Kearns, D-Buffalo, would have prevented the state from moving ahead with the plan. It was passed unanimously in June in both houses of the State Legislature.
Gallivan, Kearns and other opponents of the plan have called it a bad idea to house children in the same mental health facility as adults.
Kearns questioned Sullivan's claims about cost savings and said after talking to mental health professionals during hearings he's convinced the West Seneca facility should remain open.
"We don't even know for sure what those cost savings are," he said. "We've never gotten any factual numbers saying there would be savings. We have not seen that."
The two legislators collected more than 16,000 signatures from residents in support of keeping the center in West Seneca. The petitions were delivered to the governor's office with the bill.
The bill landed on Cuomo's desk on Nov. 22 and he had faced a deadline of Monday, Dec. 4, to sign or veto it.
The chances of a veto override by the State Legislature on such a local matter is seen as virtually nil.
For years, state officials have discussed the possibility of closing the West Seneca facility for children, which is located on East and West Road. Proposals to close the facility are opposed by parents of patients, staff members, former patients and legislators.
Cuomo administration officials have maintained in the past that moving juvenile patients to Buffalo would put children and teenagers closer to needed health care services. They promise that children would be kept away from adult patients at the Forest Avenue facility, which would have separate entrances, treatment areas and recreation areas.
The Coalition to Save the Children’s Psychiatric Center, a group of patients, former patients, family members, community activists and health care providers, has filed a legal challenge to the governor and state mental health commissioner to keep the center from moving.
A State Supreme Court justice last month refused to dismiss the case, ruling that the coalition has standing to bring the lawsuit. Sullivan on Wednesday wouldn't comment on the ongoing litigation.
Steven M. Cohen, the coalition's attorney, called Sullivan's claims about savings "specious" and said that the state had previously argued the relocation was not about money but about providing better services to children.
"When that argument utterly fell flat on its face, based upon the testimony and the written affidavits of health care professionals, now they're switching arguments to try to claim it's going to be saving money and therefore will provide greater money to serve kids," he said. "We have a system that works ... when something ain't broke, don't try to fix it."
Sullivan has said none of the children currently being served at the West Seneca facility will be moved to Buffalo. She said renovations to the Buffalo facility are about 25 percent complete, and are scheduled to be finished in mid 2019.
"I think they're afraid of losing something, of something not being there that they need," Sullivan said of the plan's opponents. "They shouldn't fear losing anything. What we are establishing on the Buffalo campus is just as high-quality and once it's up in a year and a half we'll be getting the same accolades for the wonderful care we're providing."