by Kevin D. Hendricks – West St. Paul Reader
After a hearing packed by almost 100 people December 13, the West St. Paul City Council unanimously approved a new mental health crisis center. The project goes on to the Dakota County Board.
Thirty-four people spoke during the public hearing. A majority of the crowd—roughly four out of five—supported the crisis center, speaking in favor of mental health services. A minority of residents spoke in opposition, citing safety concerns.
Dakota County and Guild Services proposed a 16,000-square-foot building with 16 beds to house intensive residential treatment, crisis services, and a “welcoming place to go” 24/7 staffed by the Dakota County crisis team.
The proposed location is the northeast corner of the Dakota County’s Northern Service Center property along Livingston Avenue.
Nearby residents have voiced concerns at past public meetings, including the November 15 Planning Commission, a neighborhood meeting attended by more than 80 people, meetings with the police chief, and more.
Complaints focused on security concerns and a lack of community notification. “Last week there was disclosed a client of Guild that seemed pretty dangerous to the public. I’m concerned our biggest nightmare would come true that something like that comes into our backyard and the first responders are our children,” said John Hansen.
“The suggestion that asking questions about this facility and program constitutes opposition to expanded mental health programs and facilities is misplaced and has a chilling and intimidating effect on reasonable discussion,” said former City Council Member John Bellows.
“You are going to make us make accommodations for our entire life. The staff at Guild, the staff at the county, they get to go home. We won’t ever get to stop worrying about when something will happen. It might not be for years, but some time it will happen,” said Britt Drake.
Other residents and community members spoke in favor of the crisis center. “Three police chiefs are on record, including our Chief Sturgeon, saying they are not concerned about this facility. So I’m personally really proud to welcome this facility to town,” said former City Council Member Aaron Van Moorlehem.
“People who are in treatment for mental health deserve to know they are valuable people. We value them. We welcome them. And we will support them in their recovery. … Let’s not let the reputation of our city reflect those few people who turn their back on those in need but instead reflect the majority of our residents who really care,” said Connye LaCombe.
“When I hear about a resource like this being developed and some of the reaction is ‘we need it, but not here,’ my reaction is we need it so why not here,” said Katie Dohman.
Some of the issues at play:
State law requires such facilities to be located in residential areas and requires that cities permit them. The city had no recourse to deny the proposal.
The city supported the location because residential homes are only on one side of the property and don’t immediately back up to it (the facility and backyards are separated by undeveloped woods). The location also offers easy access to transportation, services at the Northern Government Center, and other nearby amenities.
The city is requiring security cameras, fencing, and city review of intake policies, among other conditions.
West St. Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon has repeatedly addressed the security concerns, saying “These people are in our community already, whether they’re in a house or homeless or what have you. But this is a place where they can get off the street, or get away from whatever is causing their crisis situation, get them into a stabilized facility to seek treatment to get a more permanent stabilization plan in place to help them in the long run. These people are not going to go out and terrorize the community.”
Council Member Wendy Berry said, “The mayor and I are both on the South Metro Fire Board where we’ve been focused so much on the mental health of our firefighters for four years, and I know the chief of police has been really focused on mental health issues there. If we’re not also extending that same accessibility to people in our city, we’re doing ourselves an injustice.”
“When Dakota County built the Northern Service Center this room was packed three times as big with people against it. And they were so afraid of that building and that there were going to be criminals and people ruining their neighborhood. It just didn’t happen,” said Council Member Dick Vitelli.
Council Member Robyn Gulley added, “For everyone who took the time to come and speak, it matters a lot. Not just for us to hear these stories, which were both heartbreaking and incredibly moving, but also because it helps send a message to people who are coming into our community that this is the kind of community we are, that we are a loving and welcoming and caring community.”