Plans have been in the works to open a new detox center in Taos County since Tri-County Community Services shut down the old one on Weimer Road in 2015, but roadblocks have so far come up at every turn.
Still, town and county government officials, along with the local behavioral health agency that won an RFP to reopen detox services, still all say it's only a matter of time before the new center opens.
During a joint work session, the town council and county commission discussed the project, which is currently tied up in a property swap. The town, which owns the former Tri-County detox center – and the county, which owns the former Ancianos Senior Center, are set to exchange the properties and their buildings as soon as municipal managers and lawyers cross their T’s and dot their I’s.
The swap comes as Taos County sees an increase in drug and alcohol abuse, said Lawrence Medina, executive director of Rio Grande Alcohol Treatment Program, the organization that won an RFP from Taos County in 2019 to open a new detox facility.
“Out of 33 counties, Taos County ranks in the top five, if not top 10 worst counties with [different types of] substance use disorders and mental health [disorders] in the whole state,” said Medina.
In particular, he said the county ranks second out of 33 for the most opioid overdose -related emergency room visits. He also said suicides and suicide attempts have increased.
“We've seen a 30 percent increase in clients statewide [and] a 25 percent increase in overdoses,” he said of the most recent drug abuse statistics for New Mexico. “We're grateful for the county and the town because there needs to be a sense of urgency so we can start this part of our continuum of care.”
While Medina is eager to start offering treatment to those in need, the center remains legally suspended, with town and county attorneys finalizing the deal.
“We're getting all the documentation completed,” said Taos County manager Brent Jaramillo in the meeting. “I know it's not quite there, but my understanding is that [the lawyers are] close.”
Town of Taos manager Rick Bellis said that COVID had caused a slight delay but that lawyers have “got most of it done.” He explained the agreement the town had with the hospital stated the detox facility could be used as a COVID overflow unit in the case of another surge, or for testing purposes.
However, Bellis explained the town and county were “pretty much in agreement that the [COVID] testing can be done safer and more efficiently at the Youth & Family Center,” and said the building should not be conflicted by an arrangement with the hospital.
Bellis said his guess was “by the next meeting, we should have this [transfer] concluded.”
District 3 County Commissioner Darlene Vigil said she had hoped something could be done to meet the immediate needs of the community, rather than wait for paperwork to be finished.
“Our family and friends are in need,” she said. “I get that paperwork needs to be done – and done properly – but the need is great. My recommendation is that we do some sort of document so that we can go ahead and start utilizing that building as a detox.”
Vigil said the recently-approved Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan provides the opportunity to fund the detox facility without official ownership. “I know in government there is a process and it takes time, but it gets a little frustrating to see that hurt out there,” she added.
Jaramillo noted the county had put a $750,000 “placeholder” agenda item on their ICIP plan to include possible updates and renovations to the new detox facility “so that in the event that the property exchange took place we would have the ability … to be able to go and get dollars from the state.”
Bellis said when the exchange is complete, the operation should be “turnkey.”
“The [county’s] vision is spot on to meet the needs of the community and to address the issues that we're faced with,” said Medina, who estimated the facility will be up and running in “two or three months.” However, time will be needed for “licensing, certifications, physical setup of the facility [and] hiring resident assistants.”
When asked how Rio Grande ATP plans to avoid a similar funding fate to Tri-County, Medina said they had a three-year development plan in place to ensure that doesn’t happen. He said the plan shows how they hope to “sustain the detox for longevity.”
To accomplish this, Rio Grande ATP is looking at various funding sources at the local, state and federal levels as well as fundraising. “We’re hoping to secure perpetual money for operating from the State of New Mexico,” he said.
When Tri-County closed, they lost a $300,000 revenue fund, which Medina said he is working with local state representatives to reinstate.
“We've also raised about $41,000 as of today, just from fundraising, and we're going to continue,” he said.
When all is said and done, the building will consist of eight to 10 beds and function as a coed facility.