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Lawmakers unlikely to override Cuomo veto of WNY Children's Psych Center bill

Two lawmakers from Erie County want the State Legislature to do something it has never done since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office in 2011: override one of his vetoes.

And it looks like it will be a heavy lift to override the Wednesday night veto of legislation that would have prevented the Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center from moving from a sprawling rural campus in West Seneca to four floors of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center's Strozzi Building.

"I know it's very unusual, and highly unlikely, but I still think I need to ask for it," Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns said.

Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, said he did not know how his veto override request in the Senate would turn out.

"If we look at the history of it, they very seldom happen," Gallivan said. "The last one I'm aware of took place in 2006."

The bill to keep the psychiatric unit where it is passed unanimously in 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 Dec. 31, and no special session is planned. A single bill, like the West Seneca legislation, is not likely to drive the Legislature into an end-of-year session. A new 2018 session starts Jan. 3.

"We take Sen. 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 next week 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.

An artist's rendition of a proposed recreation area for children outside the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to close the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center in West Seneca and move its operations into four floors of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. (Image provided by the state Office of Mental Health)

Gallivan and others take issue with some of the reasoning Cuomo cited in his veto message. The governor said the state "diligently worked with stakeholders" over the past four years on the plan to move the children's center to Buffalo, that the children served predominately come from Buffalo and Niagara County and the new site is more accessible by public transit and that the West Seneca facility is in need of substantial repair.

Gallivan said the Legislature provided funding for repairs at West Seneca, but the money was never spent by the administration. He and others said children come from 19 counties, and that transportation has not been an issue mentioned by families. Gallivan also said the process was not secret, but that the state ignored comments, testimony and petitions from family members, former patients, community members and experts in the field that were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the center in West Seneca.

"Everybody knows that's the best place for those kids, we just keep asking why, why?" Dave Chudy, a supporter of the West Seneca location, said of the veto. "We don’t know."

Lydia Gaskin of Angola, who was a patient at the West Seneca facility, credits its with saving her life. She is part of a group that filed legal action against the state to keep the center in West Seneca.

"One of the most important things in my recovery was having the peace and serenity, that quiet peaceful feeling. It was really important to me at that specific facility," said Gaskin, 20. "It was very comfortable. You didn’t feel like you were in a facility when you were there. It felt kind of homey."

Allison Scanlon of Depew, whose son was treated at West Seneca, said to think the facility does not matter as much as the program is "absurd."

"Looking out at that Strozzi building, that's not a sign of hope," she said.

Many supporters of the West Seneca location said children should not be housed in the same building as adults, but Cuomo maintains that won't  happen and the populations will be separated by "a myriad of barriers to prevent any interaction." And he said five other hospitals in the state have the same configuration.

The design planned for the children's unit at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center creates an environment that is therapeutically oriented while reducing the possibility of accidents, injuries and suicide, said architect Kevin D. Murett. Furniture would be built-in to eliminate barricading and loose parts that could be used for ligature or self injury through cutting, he said.

The children's area will be on four floors in the south wing of the Strozzi building, with its own stairs and elevator. The entrance will be separated from the adult entrance by a wall, he said. The first floor will be classroom and administration areas, and the living units will be on the second through fourth floors. There will be private bathrooms, and corridors can be "passively supervised," meaning that patients can be observed without the feeling of being monitored.

There will be dedicated visiting rooms, commons areas, classrooms, and room for 46 children. A dedicated secure outdoor recreation area will open off the academic area, and landscaping and playground equipment are designed to encourage staff, patients and family interaction. There are areas where a child can explore, and other discrete areas where small groups or a therapist can engage, Murrett said.

"The fencing makes use of very pleasing natural materials," Murrett said. "Children feel more comfortable being around because it doesn’t feel like security," he said.

There also will be a separate activities and family engagement area building with a separate entrance as well as a gym, fitness room, kitchen and private rooms for therapeutic activities, Murrett said.

Cuomo said in his veto message that the state has already invested about $5.1 million in the new facility, which is about 25 percent finished. It is to open in 2019. The move will allow the state to improve child and family mental health services in Western New York, he wrote.

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