By JIMMY LAWTON
OGDENSBURG -- Sen. Patty Ritchie says state commitments to keep 550 St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center jobs in the North Country are reassuring, but SLPC Task Force Chairman Chuck Kelly says he has “no faith” in the promise.
The state Office of Mental Health announced July 10 it would close six inpatient wards at the facility by 2017 as it reduces the number of state-owned hospitals and establishes "Regional Centers of Excellence.
Then, in a letter to Ritchie that surfaced Tuesday, OMH Commissioner Kristin Woodlock said "nearly" all 520 current St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center employees would have the opportunity to "remain in the North Country if they choose."
Ritchie said the letter leaves many unanswered questions, but she believes “this assurance from OMH should help ease some of the anxiety that employees of the Psych Center have been experiencing."
Kelly, who chairs the task force dedicated to maintaining all operations at the psychiatric center, found the letter less convincing.
"(Woodlock’s) statement, she originally gave, said there would be no residents on campus by 2017," he said. "I just don't see how you can close the children's unit, close the adult unit and keep those jobs."
In her letter, Woodlock said 260 of the employees already work in the community, or outpatient, services and the sex offender treatment program. She said these employees will keep their current positions under the state's plan.
Even if the state manages to keep the 520 jobs in the North Country, Kelly says people currently being treated at the facility and other mental ill persons will still suffer as they travel to other facilities in Utica or Syracuse.
Kelly said the task force wants to see St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center become one of the state's Regional Centers of Excellence.
"The task force met (July 16) and we had a very good meeting. We discussed where we think we are and we decided we are going to fight to get everything back. We think the children's unit should stay. We think the adult unit should stay and we think the jobs should stay."
Kelly said the SLPC Task Force plans to expand its membership in order to strengthen its position and keep pressure on the state.
He said they will be reaching out to the areas colleges and leaders throughout the county for support.
He said the task force also hopes to hold rallies during the St. Lawrence Seaway Festival.
"We need to get the community involved and we are trying to find people who want to work," he said. "We are not working as Democrats or Republicans, we are working as North Country people who are trying to do the right thing for the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center and the community it serves."
And while Ritchie was pleased with the news from OMH, she said will continue to advocate for the psych center’s future.
“You can be assured that I will continue to fight for the St. Lawrence Psych Center, to preserve local jobs, and ensure access to quality mental health care services that our community needs,” the email said.