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Monday, October 22, 2018

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2013: The View from a Vine Valley Neighbor

Dear Neighbors,

I am writing this post so that we are neither celebrating nor bemoaning under false pretenses. What first confused me was the range of response from neighbors to the update information received from Assemblyman Palmesano’s office during the summer. The neighborly comments ranged from “Congratulations” to “Bummer.” As I pondered why the remarks should be so scattered, I realized it is because we “just don’t (really) know.”  But first, let’s revisit what occurred, and how Assemblyman Palmesano and Senator O’Mara were especially responsive to our concerns, and then the questions that remain.

History of the Issue

Our plight was revealed to us, to the public, and to the media in January 2012; just after the accidental discovery that occupants were being pushed out of the IRA Group Home at 6166 South Vine Valley Road, with little notice, without all of the families apparently approving and, in some cases, with occupants’ resistance. The circumstances for some were heart-wrenching. They disappeared into new locations, separated from each other and sometimes at real inconvenience to their families. A cloak of secrecy prevailed.

We formed an action team for SOS (Save Our Surroundings) as we’d done for a number of other community issues, and we not only asked for the return of these people who had been members of our community, but we also expressed our concerns about the clear statement of Finger Lakes Developmental Disabled Services Organization (FLDDSO) Director Michael Feeney that those prior occupants would be replaced by six registered sex offenders of level 2 and level 3. That level indicates a high risk of repeat behaviors. The community strongly expressed its concern that, given the family-oriented and open nature of our seasonal resort community, any sex offenders (registered or not) are entirely inappropriate to the safety and well being of our families, residents and guests.

At the first meeting held by SOS, we heard that the Town of Middlesex attorney would be asked to look at the situation. Then Town Supervisor Multer initially made a strong statement of opposition to what was being done at the Middlesex IRA Group Home. But the desire for a public hearing to give the community’s real and credible input to NYS never materialized. There seemed to be little follow-up to the desire of residents for action to hold NYS accountable and there was a lack of reporting to the community about what the Town of Middlesex was or was not doing on our behalf. Inquiries were made wherever possible in “the NYS system” but met with closed doors, delays, and inaction. There seemed to be no accountability for NYS simply to abide by its own rulebook in reference to community concerns.

Help from our Senator and Assemblyman

Mr. O’Mara and Mr. Palmesano promptly heard our concerns and met with some of our members. Mr. Palmesano also attended our meeting in Middlesex to give a status report and to hear our issues. They both made our case to Commissioner Courtney Burke of the NYS Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), who oversees the FLDDSO. We submitted petitions to Governor Cuomo and to Commissioner Burke, hearing nothing from the former and only receiving an unresponsive letter from the latter. We came to understand that those who had been virtually forcibly removed from our community were not going to be returned to us in spite of our many petitions and requests. Some had adjusted to their new environment with varying degrees of accommodation, and others were rumored to have adjustment problems kept secret by the FLDDSO, refusing even to allow visits by those who were very interested in their welfare. Such resistance was manifested to us by hang-up phone calls and in a complex volunteer enlistment process that dragged out for a frustratingly long period of time, punctuated by deafening silence.

Mr. O’Mara and Mr. Palmesano reported that they were keeping up their efforts to address safety of our community but we really had little understanding of what was going on in NYS’s own process. From Mr. Alesi, a local resident retiring as a NYS Senator, came a warning to be patient and remain passive in pushing for answers or we might hinder the process set in motion by our legislators. Obviously, for many of us, this was a difficult and confusing time of a hard decision — to act or “just to allow the process to work.”

Thus we had little alternative than to trust, and fortunately Senator O’Mara and Assemblyman Palmesano did not desert us. Finally, just as the new occupants of the group home were moving in, we were informed by Mr. Palmesano that the occupants would not be registered sex offenders. We believe at this time there are 3 people residing at what is now called the “Vine Valley IRA” rather than “Middlesex IRA.” As with many of our unanswered questions, the name change had never been explained. Some speculated that the “sex” in Middlesex had to be removed because they are sex offenders, albeit ‘unregistered’. Such name changes will likely cause more difficulty in getting information under Freedom of Information Laws (FOIL.)  Are there unregistered sex offenders on-site? We just don’t know anything about the backgrounds of the people housed there.

Unanswered Questions

The unanswered questions are many:

  • Why did the organization responsible for a house that failed a Fire Inspection in April 2010 not tell its occupants and their families until late November 2011 of a condition so dangerous that it required their hurried removal and no return? Were they deliberately put in danger for an extended period? Or had there really been no danger which required prior occupants to move?
  • Why were occupants apparently moved before their families even agreed? Why did Mr. Feeney say there was only $10,000 available for the renovations when he was pressed to bring back the people who had resided there? The fire inspectors’ estimate was $30,000 – $33,000 and then the NYS Dormitory Authority awarded an average contract of about $250,000 per house for each of 4 houses within the FLDDSO network which were in apparently similar circumstances. Why?
  • Why was a bid request made public and awards made public before families were even told of the disruption impending?
  • Why was the community never given a public hearing with a chance to respond before plans were cast in stone?
  • Why do we not know, to this day, the nature of those who moved into the rehabbed facility? While we have been informed by Mr. Palmesano and Mr. O’Mara that the new occupants are not registered sex offenders, we have no way of knowing if they are sex offenders who are not registered, or if they have other criminal behaviors which could still represent a community risk. Did we end up with a better or worse situation than what Mr. Feeney boldly proclaimed last February? Do our representatives or Town officials know anything about the people housed there? We just don’t know.
  • We noted that work started on burying the apparently needed water tanks  AFTER the new occupants arrived. If there really had been a dangerous condition, were the new occupants  in danger since they moved in? Or was the big burial project not needed?
  • A 5-alarm fire in October, 2012 revealed that the water tanks hadn’t even been hooked up to the sprinkler system, even though there were occupants at risk.  Tanker trucks had to be used on site.  After awarding an estimated quarter of a million dollars for rehabilitation to supposedly make the house safer, it didn’t even have an operating sprinkler system; why not?
  • Why is the main exit door still hindered by close parking of vehicles?  Although much was made of evacuation times in forcing the removal of prior occupants, the consistent tight parking of vans or trucks on both sides of the evacuation ramp continue to raise questions as to whether or not the safety of occupants is uppermost in priority.

We do believe that Mr. Palmesano and Mr. O’Mara worked diligently on our behalf, and for that we are very grateful, whether they had succeeded fully, partially or not at all. We didn’t even get an acknowledgement of our letters and petitions from Mr. Cuomo. Nevertheless, our Senator and Assemblyman went to bat for us, and that is more than we got from most others. For their concern, and actions on our behalf, and for pursuing the matter over an extended period of time with diligence and persistence, they deserve our appreciation. Not many representatives would stick out their necks for such a small community.

But the reason for our receiving comments from neighbors which ranged from “Congratulations!” to “Bummer” is because people don’t actually know all the results. We don’t know the relative level of community risk of the IRA home’s occupants to the community. Clearly there are restrictions on information under HIPPA healthcare and privacy laws; but, we don’t need names and dates and specifics of medical or behavioral or criminal personal data. We do still look for answers to what our current situation is and we need to investigate further to be able to assess prevailing community health and safety risk, and to decide if protective plans are needed.  It still seems very wrong to take people who have needed and likely still need the protection of themselves and of the community in the Monroe Developmental Center and dump them into a residential community without adequate controls or information or protections, and to displace others from the only home they had known for 20 years.   And since that is how the wards of the state are being treated (and others who need facilities slipping down the priority list), we have no reason to think any particular care or protection has been given to the well-being of our own community of Vine Valley.

So for now, it’s a coin toss as to whether congratulations or condolences are in order. Wisdom would imply we take further steps to gather more knowledge if possible, and to protect as best we can, not because  there IS a  community risk, but because we just don’t know that there isn’t. We just don’t know.

Just some thoughts by a Vine Valley resident,

Diane Harris

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