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Baker Victory ceremony gets mixed reaction

The groundbreaking Tuesday morning for a new $16 million residential treatment center for Baker Victory Services continued to receive a mixed reception in Lackawanna, with residents expressing concerns for safety while city officials citing the need for an updated facility.

Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo is expected to attend the ceremony, joining Msgr. Paul Burkard, Baker Victory president, and Terese Scofidio, chief executive.

First proposed in 2007, the 46,000-foot facility at 125 Martin Road is expected to be completed in 13 months, said Walter Smith, director of public relations for Baker Victory Services. Currently, the treatment center serves as a temporary home for 40 residents ages 12 to 21 with psychiatric and behavioral issues. Eighty-two percent of residents are from the eight counties of Western New York. Forty percent of the population is female. They are houses in three cottage-like buildings. The new plan would put all of the residential treatment clients under one roof.

“It’s important to understand that the current residences were built in the late ’50s and early ’60s and they’ve been retrofitted and upgraded as far as they can go,” Smith said. “It will be a huge upgrade as far as safety and security.”

Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski made it clear he is not in favor of the expansion.

“It has nothing against the workers or the diocese; I have a problem with the clientele they bring in here,” Szymanski said. “It’s been an ongoing battle. The clientele have a more violent past than people would expect.”

At a public hearing on the proposed project in August 2014, Szymansksi spoke about the strain on city fire and police departments who responded to 1,622 calls for service at the residential treatment facility since 2006. “They stem from runaways to violent situations including fights between residents,” he said.

“There’s a lot of misinformation that went out regarding this project,” said Hank Pirowski, Lackawanna City Council president. “Baker Victory Services is the largest employer in the City of Lackawanna. I believe they employ 1,200 people and one-fifth are Lackawanna residents.

“This will make the residents safer in the surrounding communities,” Pirowski contended. “It will also make the kids who go there safer. There was no legal framework to deny them from doing this expansion. It was a gigantic waste of time and money by the city to pursue a lawsuit.”

Council Member Annette Iafallo said she is “100 percent in favor of Baker Victory Services improving what they have. It has never been a question of them staying here or leaving.”

Details of the security enhancements promised by Baker Victory administrators are not clear but initial plans called for motion detection equipment, cameras, two closed courtyards for recreation and a 6-foot-high chain-link fence to replace the current 4-foot fence.

“The new building will be further back from the road,” said Smith. “In addition, the new facility will house the entire population of 40 residents instead of having them split between three resident cottages.”

Jeffrey DePasquale, a retired state trooper, lives a quarter-mile from the treatment center. He described physical confrontations between clients and staff members that have spilled over onto his front yard.

“Before they proceeded with anything new, they needed to provide some assurances that they can control what’s going on over there, and they haven’t done that since I’ve moved here in 1989,” he said. “That’s all we want as neighbors – control over the clients and an upgrade in security.

“We don’t know who’s who,” DePasquale said. “They don’t wear anything identifying them as staff members. You would think at the very least a staff member would have a golf shirt designating them as an employee. There have also been instances of clients swimming in my neighbors’ pools without authorization.

“They say it continues the mission of Father Baker, but not what’s going on there. The neighbors in the immediate area are not happy with it only because we sense a lack of communication from the facility, a lack of security and a lack of responsiveness,” said DePasquale. “That’s frustrating.”