PITTSFIELD -- In an attempt to allay concerns surrounding a controversial methadone clinic planned for the city, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi on Monday told a forum of concerned citizens that -- wherever it's finally located -- the city will only benefit from increased treatment options for local addicts.
"I'm very confident in saying Pittsfield has nothing to fear and certainly a lot to gain from this service," Bianchi said. "I'm committed to making the city a better place and I think this will do that."
The clinic, first proposed over a year ago, has been the subject of intense scrutiny since former Mayor James M. Ruberto's administration attempted to block Spectrum Health Systems' plans to open downtown
Stressing that the city can't stop a legitimate business from opening in a location of its choosing, Bianchi said he organized the forum on Monday night to outline the need for the clinic, which local and state health officials present described as dire.
The forum also marked the first time officials from Spectrum addressed the public at an open forum.
Spectrum CEO Charles Faris said he wanted to dispel concerns that methadone clinics make bad neighbors, describing the company's facilities as orderly and discreet.
"Reports [from other communities] have been good," he said. "Many say they don't even know there's a methadone clinic operating in their community -- we're more or less invisible."
The nonprofit operates five clinics in Massachusetts, none of which have resulted in increased crime or other problems, Faris said -- a claim backed by the communities where Spectrum currently operates, Bianchi said, citing a survey conducted by city officials and Police Chief Michael Wynn.
"One site in Worcester is right next to an elementary school, you can literally reach out the window and touch the school, and in 13 years, there's never been an incident," Faris said. (Satellite images of Spectrum's Worcester facility show that the clinic is next to an elementary school, but is at least 100 feet away and buffered by trees.)
Faris said the clinic would employ a trained security staff and wouldn't tolerate loitering in the vicinity of the center. He said most patients would pick up their medication daily between 6 and 9 a.m.
State public health officials and local substance abuse treatment experts who spoke at the forum described Pittsfield as a prime candidate for a methadone treatment center.
The city has by far the highest rate of non-fatal, opioid-related emergency room and hospital admissions among similarly sized localities in the state, said Hilary Jacobs, the director of the bureau of substance abuse services at the state De partment of Public health.
And with 515 cases reported in the city in 2011, Pittsfield has as many people with opioid addictions as in the entire rest of the county, she said.
"The numbers are just striking," said Jacobs.
Currently, there are 108 methadone patients living in Pittsfield who have to drive more than 50 miles daily to treatment centers in Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee, according to DPH data.
Many of the residents who addressed the panel said they appreciated that the city needed a clinic, but they took issue with the secrecy surrounding where it might be located.
"I'm not opposed to you coming, I'm opposed to the manner in which this has been presented to us as a community," said Joyce Bernstein, a co-owner of Spice Dragon on North Street. "We all look pretty silly not knowing where you're going and what you're doing."
The sentiment was echoed repeatedly during the question and answer portion of the forum. One resident's demand for information about which locations in Pittsfield are currently under consideration drew cheers from the crowd of about 60.
In response, Bianchi stressed that both Spectrum and city officials are barred from talking about where the clinic might be located because of Spectrum's pending federal lawsuit against the city and a subsequent confidentiality ag reement signed by Ruberto as part of an attempt settle that lawsuit.
Regardless, Bianchi said that it's ultimately up to Spectrum where they choose to open.
"A business that is licensed and appropriately zoned can operate where it chooses to operate and a community can not dictate that you must be in one place or another," Bianchi said.
Bianchi and Faris said that if a settlement is reached, further community discussions regarding a location are possible, but neither party knew if or when a such an agreement might be reached.
After the meeting, Faris said he was unfazed by the rancor that sprang up around the siting issues.
"Hindsight is always 20/20," he said. "But is there anything I'd do differently? I don't think so. We'd probably just end up in this position anyway."
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By the numbers ...
- People reporting opioid addiction in Pittsfield: 515
- People reporting opioid addiction in Berkshire County: 1,038
- Pittsfield residents currently traveling for methadone treatment: 108
- Berkshire County residents currently traveling for methadone treatment: 210
- Non-fatal opioid related hospital visits by Pittsfield residents: 695