[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, representing the opinion of a verified resident regarding a complex and nuanced subject. Readers are encouraged to consider a variety of sources when approaching such a topic. The opinions expressed below do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The B-Town Blog, nor its staff:]
The mental health system in this state is broken. The state hospital and DSHS exist in a constant state of scandal. The creation of Enhanced Service Facilities, (ESFs), was done hastily, without considering possible consequences, or allowing for their appropriate placement, and with no consideration for the safety of the surrounding community. Simply put, it was done because it is less expensive to house this population in local communities. The state also feels it is appropriate to let the communities assume the liability for these facilities, as well.
Almost exactly a year ago, the citizens of Burien made their voices heard regarding the placement of an ESF in a residential neighborhood. Noble Healthcare Services, LLC wanted to place the facility near a daycare and elementary school. They were asking Burien to amend zoning in order for them to do it. After an evening of overwhelming opposition, Noble withdrew their application and moved on – to Chehalis. They attempted to do the same thing there – open an ESF near an elementary school. Again, they were met with resounding resistance from the community, and three days later, withdrew their application. They currently have a grant from the state, and are still shopping for a location, including the Burien area, so Noble has still not given up on opening an ESF in this community. Watch this space!
When Noble withdrew their application in Burien, the city put a 6-month moratorium in place, to “study” ESFs, zoning, etc. and to determine where and if it would allow an ESF to be built here. Subsequently, they also instituted a second 6-month moratorium, which expires soon. For a time, it appeared the City Council was leaning toward allowing an ESF, with limitations regarding zoning and separation requirements from vulnerable populations. Then the Planning Commission, whose members have no experience or expertise in this area, recommended the Council remove any zoning and separation requirements, which would allow an ESF to be placed virtually anywhere in our community! As of right now, it appears a majority of council members are willing to yield to their recommendation.
After Noble left Chehalis, that city took the opportunity to strengthen their zoning requirements. Their purpose was to afford the city some measure of control, should they be approached in the future, about where it might allow, or if it would allow, an ESF. Consider this – if our council allows one of these facilities to open in Burien with no restrictions, the word will be out that we are open for business, and will invite more of the same.
Over the last month or so, I have spoken with city council members from Chehalis and other cities that have been approached about allowing an ESF to be opened in their city. I wanted to try and understand pros and cons from another perspective, assuming I was missing something, such as a hidden benefit. Without exception, every member I spoke with told me there is NO advantage, financially or otherwise, to allow an ESF into a city. The monetary gains from permits and B&O tax are minimal, yet the liability is huge. I have read each incident report available for all four of the existing ESFs in Washington, and those are just the incidents that have been reported. It would blow your mind to learn of the magnitude and frequency of problematic behaviors at these facilities. If there is an incident at a facility, the owner of the facility bears no responsibility, nor does the state, who places them in the ESF. So guess what? That means the city is on the hook for any incident affecting the public stemming from a resident at an ESF. I asked several council members from other cities why a city, after two moratoriums, would acquiesce and allow an ESF to be built anywhere in the city, with no separation requirements regarding vulnerable populations, and they all answered the same- the city is likely being pressured, or are afraid of being sued.
Another crucial point – the current session of the state legislature, ending in February, is attempting to amend the language of ESFs to include the wording “violent sexual predator”, meaning they will be among the populations that could be housed in ESFs if this passes. Is the Planning Commission and City Council aware of this? In my opinion, this alone is a “deal-breaker”.
This will NOT be an adult group home. The residents in this facility will NOT be from Burien. It will NOT be a place for 16 homeless or addicted people that we see in our community every day. It will be a for-profit establishment whose purpose is to house 16 people from the state hospital who somehow qualify to be discharged, but can’t live independently due to extreme behaviors, addictions, etc. The “expectation” is they will live in an unlocked facility, with access to public services and transportation, allowed to leave at will, but can’t be forced to take their medication. Having read the incident reports, and taking into account the past successes of DSHS, I’m not convinced this is the reality.
The council loves to claim they are trying to be proactive. If that were the case here, they would have spent the time during back-to-back moratoriums to ensure a facility such as this would not be allowed in a populated area, near vulnerable populations, if one is allowed here at all. Truth be told, our council has a lot on its plate at the current time. I fear this matter is so new, ever-evolving and complicated, that most members do not possess the expertise or background to make an informed decision on this matter. That being the case, is it too much to ask for some common sense to prevail?
To our council members – you are elected, by our residents, to serve all 50,000 of Burien’s taxpayers. For the last ten years, public safety has been the number one issue for Burien voters. Yet, the council seems to be putting the safety and welfare of 16 people ahead of their constituents. Stop borrowing problems you can’t even begin to comprehend, and focus on fixing the ones we are confronted with on a daily basis.
Fellow stakeholders – residents, homeowners, taxpayers, parents, business owners, if this issue gives you pause, I urge you to gather more information, call or write your council members, and attend the next City Council meeting Monday, February 3, at 7 p.m.
– Shay McBride
Burien resident, 23 years