The problem of drugs in this county, the struggles people have to shun them and the anguish they bring to families, took center stage Tuesday morning in the courthouse annex.
Not in the office across the hall, where the state’s attorney mounts its prosecution of drug offenders, who make up the majority of criminals in the county.
Not in the third floor of the main building next door, where both drug users and dealers are handed out anywhere from days, maybe months, in jail to numerous years of serious state prison time.
Not in the planning and zoning department in the back, where plans are drawn up and approvals granted to build houses where families try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to remain drug-free.
No, the stage was the commission chambers, where Sheriff AJ Smith and five county commissioners hashed out fledging plans to transform the vacant state work camp west of Apalachicola into the Bay City Wellness Center.
The matter was introduced at the outset of the meeting, even before the opening portion where the public gets to speak, by County Coordinator Michael Morón. He shared a cost estimate for bringing the site up to par from architect Doug Shuler, of Barnett Fronczak Barlowe & Shuler of Tallahassee, that totaled approximately $2.5 million,.
“Keep in mind that $2.5 million cost estimate is to return the buildings to what they were,” said Morón. “This amount doesn’t include any AHCA or other agency requirements to use the facility as a drug rehab center.”
In his outline of the possibilities of his proposed non-profit wellness center, Smith said it could have an additional effect of addressing a growing problem of homelessness in the county.
“What are we going to do about people roaming all hours of the night? This could be used for that,” he said. “It’s certainly a huge undertaking but I think the community’s ready for it.”
He pointed to several programs he has beefed up to serve the jail’s 80 inmates, 95 percent of whom have drug problems. Smith cited the Fresh Start program and a huge volunteer network, and spoke of talks he has had with the area’s network of mental and behavioral health providers, which brings together Big Bend Community Based Care and Disc Village and Apalachee Center.
“People at the jail are court ordered, they don’t have a choice,” Smith noted, contrasting that with what he is hearing from the community is a pressing need, that of a voluntary place for them or their loved ones to get help.
“They can just walk in the door, people are looking for places for them to go,” he said.
Chairman Noah Lockley asked “is this going to be more like a local, state, worldwide?”
Smith said it would depend on requirements stipulated by funding. “If I can’t get the money through state appropriation, through Triumph and through DOJ (Department of Justice) money, it’s probably not going to happen,” he said.
Included in Smith’s outline was the fact the Gulf County sheriff has said his office has pledged $100,000 towards the project. “He has people just like we do who need help,” Smith said. “Liberty, Calhoun, Gulf they have no beds for anybody. Tallahassee and Bay County have places for people to go. We have to send them out of town if we can even find a bed for them.”
Commissioner Ricky Jones focused on the broad definition of Smith’s ambitious idea.
“There’s a big difference between voluntary and court ordered,” he said. “What concerns me is it seems kind of open ended. I think we have to narrow down our focus to see what we are saying yes to.”
Smith said his focus is drug rehab, and Jones continued to inquire.
“I also had people say what are you guys saying yes to? Some have apprehensions. If it’s voluntary, when they come out they’re going to be in Franklin County, not in any other county,” he said.
“That’s something we have to deal with if you guys decide you want to move forward with this project,” said the sheriff. “People coming in o the program are going to be vetted. If they have a criminal record with an extensive record, we’re probably not going to bring them in. I understand your concerns.”
Commissioner Bert Boldt then strongly supported Smith’s vision, calling it “proactive therapeutic law. You have reached out in a compelling need for our society. I encourage you to develop a business plan, what this looks like, and get commitments from fellow sheriffs and continue to enhance this idea.
“The judgeships would be thrilled about this opportunity, (particularly) for marginal youth,” he said. “It’s a great service to our judgeship.”
The vision is to use the five fenced-in acres of the 40-acre site that was used by the Bay City Work Camp, up until July 2013 when the state announced its closure.
Smith said the success of the program will depend on establishing sharing arrangements such as help in the creation of a kitchen on-site, or with the food vendor now serving the jail in Eastpoint.
Questions surface on rehab's implications
There was no visible opposition to the concept, but the commissioners, led by Smokey Parrish, as well as Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson, expressed concerns before they unanimously voted to refer the matter to City Attorney Michael Shuler and Morón, to work out with Smith a detailed deal with the county.
“The county is not going to be able to fund this,” Parrish said. “I’m pretty much committed to letting you have the building but there’s no way the county can fund this. There a lot of programs I’d like to do. Taxpayers tell me they paying all that they can pay.”
Smith said there are available state and federal monies. “We just have to do the work to try to get it,” he said. “The facility itself could be a match.”
Johnson too said she supported the project, but offered a list of questions for the sheriff. “I am not against a drug rehabilitation facility and understand that of course there is a need, however, I do worry that the financial burden of a rehab facility will be too costly for the county,” she said.
The clerk asked whether in the future, the county would be asked to provide funding, forcing them to increase millage or cut other budgets, and asked whether the sheriff has received any guaranteed funding and for how long. “No other small counties in Florida have drug rehabilitation facilities because they simply cannot afford them,” she said.
Johnson wanted specifics how much the county’s current $15,000 annual insurance costs would rise, and who would be responsible for the added costs, as well as for utility, maintenance and repair costs.
“The board needs to fully understand and address any liability concerns that may arise from the construction, operation or lease of the facility,” she said. “If the board should decide to do an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with a non-profit, what are the boundaries for a public / private partnership? Can the sheriff’s department use county funded staff to assist in the operations of a non-profit?”
She asked that commissioners “should remain mindful that the success rate for rehabilitation is very low,” citing the sheriff’s earlier report.
“If drug rehabilitation is not successful, will the participants from other counties integrate into the community of Apalachicola instead of returning to their home counties?” she asked. “The board should remain mindful that Franklin County does not have the job opportunities nor housing market that larger counties with rehab centers have. There will be challenges that extend beyond rehabilitation for such a small community.”
Shuler said he intends to go beyond a basic MOU and “work out a structure that’s protective of county coffers. I will bring back a structure for you to consider, it’s a little too complex for a simple one-paged document," he said, noting he envisioned a combination of a contractual agreement and a deed conveyance.
“That’s the best way to insulate the county and transfer that to a non-profit,” said Shuler. “The deed would have a reverter condition in it.”
The county attorney also noted that he would proceed based on “the speed of getting it right, not the speed of moving fast.”
Sheriff, public voice their passions
During the 45-minute discussion, Smith grew impassioned on the matter, noting that reducing the jail population could save millions.
“I think nobody (other counties) wants to put the money into it because to do it is a heavy lift, it is a lot of work,” he said. “A lot of counties haven’t taken this addiction problem head on. I know for a fact we have a problem in this county, and we can continue sweep it under the drug.
“There’s not a person in this room who doesn’t have a person that’s been touched by addiction,” Smith said, noting how drugs sever communication with families and give rise to secrecy and deception.
Like members of the public who followed, Smith shared person details, noting that his two brothers were affected by drugs, one of whom is deceased, and that his daughter went through 12 months of drug rehab.
“Right now we’re not doing anything except putting them in jail and the problem is not going to be solved,” he said.
He said people in surrounding counties often bring in the drugs, and cited examples of many pounds of meth seized, a striking contrast to the half a gram a user may take to get high. “When you think about it in pounds, we have that kind of drugs coming into our community,” he said. “People can’t go to a Palm Beach high priced rehab center. If we don’t have a way for them, they’re going to continue to use.”
The commissioners then heard from several members of the public who backed the sheriff’s plan.
“Nothing creates more havoc and destroys more lives and stands in the way of building success in their family than drugs,” said Allan Feifer, from Alligator Point. “Our county is rife with drugs. To me this concept is proactive and you can find a thousand reasons not to do it. I don’t hear the strident advocacy to whip this program. Please find a way to make this happen>
Barbara Rohrs from Lanark Village, spoke of her brother who died from a drug problem. “I wouldn’t wish putting anybody through what I had to go through for my brother’s safety and wellbeing,” she said. “We need this we need this badly, gentlemen, we do.”
St. George Island resident Walter Armistead said he hears from inmates during his volunteer work preaching the Gospel at the jail. They tell me that it’s sad and they need some relief,” he said. “I know the drug problem is here and I appreciate the sheriff at least trying to tackle it.”
Perhaps the strongest voice of support came from Jarred Patterson, the assistant state attorney.
“In criminal justice we're designed to punish people who break the law. I only have so many things I can do with people, we don’t have other options. Anything that gives me another tool to try to address the problem is a good thing,” he said. “I know cost is an issue, but I think if we can offer a way for people not to go to jail, I think eventually that cost is going to come back to the county tenfold.
“(Right now) we don’t have the facilities, we don’t have the program, we don’t have the counselors. We have jail, probation and prison,” said Patterson. “Until we have a means to address that, beyond just lock' em up, lock 'em up, lock 'em up, it’s going to continue to be a revolving door that costs the county more money.”
Following a vote to begin talks with the sheriff, Lockley wrapped up the discussion.
“OK, sheriff, go make history,” he said. “Good luck.”