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Expansion of Niagara Falls methadone clinic meets opposition

NIAGARA FALLS – Everyone is in agreement: Addiction to opiates, such as prescription painkillers and heroin, has become a nationwide epidemic.

In just 30 days, between January and February, 43 overdose patients were brought in to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center’s emergency room.

One treatment option is methadone, which is administered on a daily basis to block the craving for opioids and ease symptoms of withdrawal, at clinics like the one operated by Northpointe Council in the Trott Access Center on 11th Street.

To meet the growing demand, the human service organization is in the final stages of an expansion proposed at 606 Sixth St. But the project has run into serious opposition from residents and city officials who want the clinic to be located somewhere else. Opponents of the city site want to pursue an Orleans/Niagara BOCES medical training center in the former Niagara Falls Board of Education building, which is currently owned by Ellicott Development.

Daniel J. Shubsda, president and chief executive officer of Northpointe Council, said the agency’s plan to move started in 2014 and right along has been no secret.

Shubsda said Northpointe officials first met with James Bragg in the city planning office in 2015, filed a letter of intent with the city and were told that it was zoned correctly and “everything was pretty straightforward.”

Bragg, who calls himself a lower level civil servant who had no authority to give the OK to Northpointe, said he warned Shubsda when they met in May that the community would “not react well.” He urged the agency to immediately contact residents in the area, as well as Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo before going forward.

“We never heard from them again (until we got the letter of intent in November),” Bragg said. “It was my understanding, as well as Seth’s that BOCES was going in there.”

Shubsda said a preapplication summary and a floor plan was filed with Niagara County on July 1. After approval of the preapplication by the regional Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, a full application was filed Oct. 16. A letter of intent was also sent to the city Oct. 27.

Final steps included state and federal approvals from the Department of Health and the Drug Enforcement Agency. The state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services gave its final approval last week. A commitment to lease the building was signed with Ellicott Development in September and was extended to March as they waited for the final approvals.

Northpointe is ready to go to the next step, which will be securing building permits to renovate the vacant building.

Long waiting list

With nearly 150 people on its waiting list, Northpointe plans to use 10,000 square feet of space for a new methadone treatment program, which includes a dispensing clinic and counseling. The clinic would expand its services from the site at Trott, where the agency currently treats 89 people and is at maximum capacity. The clinic has been at that location on 11th Street for 40 years.

Residents are trying to block the move, saying it is not a good fit for the neighborhood. Elected city officials have joined the protest.

“It’s little like trying to close the barn door after the cow has already been let out,” admitted vocal opponent Robert Pascoal, president of the Greater Niagara Landlord Association.

“I think our government has to do a better job of making these things known,” Pascoal said. He said a lot of people didn’t know about the plan and once they did know, they became agitated.

He told the City Council at it last meeting in February that a methadone treatment clinic should not be located at the proposed site in the core of the city. He has called the proposed clinic a mega-regional clinic, which would quadruple the number of patients now being seen and accommodate people from around the county and from as far away as Buffalo.

He said he believes this also would encourage those who commute to the clinic to consider relocating to Niagara Falls.

He called it “shameful” that Niagara Falls was not involved sooner.

“I know why they didn’t want to tell us. They didn’t want to deal with the protests,” Pascoal said at the meeting.

Caught off guard

Piccirillo said after the meeting that city officials were aware of Northpointe’s interest, but not aware of how serious the plan was. He suggested there still may be ways for the city to stop the forward progress of the clinic.

After hearing the complaints at the meeting, Mayor Paul J. Dyster put out a statement the next day saying that since August 2015 city officials have believed that an Orleans/Niagara Board of Education Cooperative Services medical training facility is a better use for the building.

“The Northpointe methadone clinic proposed for 606 Sixth St. is not the highest and best use for this particular building or neighborhood,” Dyster wrote, adding that it does not fit into the city’s master plan or support the new development happening around it.

Dyster admitted that Western New York and the nation as a whole are experiencing an opioid addiction epidemic and said the city is ready to assist New York State and service providers find the right location for these vital services. But he added, “606 Sixth Street is not that location.”

City Council Chairman Andrew Touma said in a Feb. 24 letter to William Paladino of Ellicott Development, which was obtained by The Buffalo News, that all five members of the City Council sent a petition objecting to the plan to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

“The BOCES proposal offers a timely alternative that I hope will be given the highest consideration possible. We anticipate strong community opposition to the Northpointe tenancy,” Touma wrote.

Niagara County Legislator Mark J. Grozio wrote a similar letter to Paladino, which was forwarded to the state office.

At the last Council meeting, Norma Higgs, treasurer of the Niagara Falls Block Club Council, presented a letter and neighbor petition signed by residents. She said the petition was signed by “just about everyone on Sixth Street.”

State approval

Despite those concerns and petitions, the plan did receive approval from the state office, the final approval needed for it to move forward.

Former City Judge Anthony Morinello, who is running for state assemblyman in the 145th District, has proposed moving the clinic into the vacant police headquarters on Hyde Park Boulevard, while others have suggested they make a move closer to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center on 10th Street.

Shubsda said any change in plans would set Northpointe back another two years or more depending on the condition of the building selected.

Piccirillo was not specific, but said the city has “proposed a site in a less densely populated area.”

Shubsda said the site proposed this past week by the city is in an industrial area at 1625 Buffalo Ave., the old Carborundum offices. He said he explored the building three years ago, but it was not handicapped accessible and would require major renovations.

“I’d all but given up on a location in Niagara Falls,” said Shubsda of the search for a new location. “We tried to get Trott to work.”

He said the agency looked at several different properties until it met with Ellicott Development in 2014 and found the space at 606 Sixth St.

“It had the space and we saw possibilities,” Shubsda said. He said Northpointe developed many drafts of floor plans with Ellicott Development that would adhere to state and federal requirements for such centers.

He denied the characterization it would be a mega-clinic, noting they plan to take about 200 to 250 clients. He said the half of the 10,000-square-foot site would be used for the methadone clinic while the other half would be an outpatient treatment center for alcohol and drug abuse programs.

How it operates

He has tried to allay some of the fears and what he characterized as misconceptions about the project.

Methadone is administered orally under strict regulations. Unlike suboxone, which is prescribed by a doctor, methadone cannot be resold illegally.

“Our offices basically work like a doctor’s office. With methadone, people get their dose of methadone and then they leave,” Shubsda said. He said there is a lot of control so the doses can’t be diverted to another person, as well as drug testing and counseling for those who attend the clinic.

“People actually have to come in. It’s in a liquid form and they have to take it in front of a nurse and the doctor regulates the amount they take,” he added. “You couple that with counseling and work on their recovery.”

He said unlike the vision of young people with needles hanging around the building, 40 percent of Northpointe’s clients are age 40 or older and many clients are employed and at the clinic because they are addicted to painkillers. Sixty-five percent of people currently in the program are from Niagara Falls and most of those on the waiting list also are from the city.

He said the clinic would be unlikely to draw people from Buffalo, although there are one or two from Erie County, because Buffalo has three methadone clinics. However the site in Niagara Falls is the only methadone clinic in Niagara County. He said he would like to see a clinic site opened up in eastern Niagara County, but the need is in the City of Niagara Falls.

One client’s account

Shubsda referred to former Dr. Pravin Mehta, sentenced in May to six years in prison for overprescribing painkillers, saying, “People were lined up outside (of his office) for their prescriptions. Now, all of sudden, you have all of these people addicted to opiates. Nobody did anything. He was a doctor and everybody knew what was going on. None of the neighbors complained and yet now you have a program looking to treat the people rather than have them here in the city untreated.”

He added, “Would you rather have a neighbor that’s treated or untreated, a neighbor that’s going to break into your properties and steal your copper pipes for their addiction?”

Shubsda said it would take years to look for a new site and go through the process all over again.

“Niagara Falls Memorial said they had 43 overdose cases come into their emergency room in that last 30 days. I don’t think we can wait that long,” he said.

Northpointe has said it is only interested in using the first floor of the building at 606 Sixth St. and would like to share the building, providing nurses in training a chance to get hands-on work with its clients.