Permit approved for detox center

Opening projected for 2020

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 8/15/19

Río Grande Alcoholism Treatment Program cleared a major hurdle in its efforts to open a new detox center in Taos on Aug. 7, when the Taos Planning and Zoning Commission approved a special use …

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Permit approved for detox center

Opening projected for 2020

Posted

Río Grande Alcoholism Treatment Program cleared a major hurdle in its efforts to open a new detox center in Taos on Aug. 7, when the Taos Planning and Zoning Commission approved a special use permit that will allow the local provider to repurpose a building at 920 Salazar Road.

The industrial-zoned space once housed offices for Taos Magistrate Court, and later a medication-assisted-therapy program run by Tri-County Community Services. Now it is cleared to undergo a transformation into a 16-bed detox facility that will accept men and women from around Taos County who want to get clean and sober in a safe, supportive environment.

Over the next six months, Lawrence Medina, Río Grande’s executive director since 2018, will work to renovate that space to meet the requirements of a detox center. Initial architectural plans were drawn by planning and zoning commissioner Doug Patterson, who recused himself from voting at the Aug. 7 meeting.

The remaining commissioners all voted in favor of approving the permit. Residents and members of the town council will have 10 business days from the date of approval to appeal the decision.

The state Construction Industries Division will have to approve the construction phase of the project, which will include a change of occupancy and will take roughly six months to complete, Medina estimated.

The detox center is projected to open in the first quarter of next year. Medina said it will fill a vital need in the Taos community, which has been without a detox center since late 2015, when a detox run by Tri-County in the Weimer Road neighborhood closed down.

“We felt it was imperative that we step up and meet these needs,” Medina said at the meeting. “Our data shows that based on the deaths due to alcoholism, overdose, trips to the hospital, the jail, that the need is overwhelming.”

A large contingent of local officials, health care professionals and residents came out to show their support for Medina’s application at the Aug. 7  meeting, filling seating inside the town chambers and standing in the aisles as they waited for a chance to speak.

But the meeting they showed up for almost didn’t happen, after town manager Rick Bellis and town attorney Stephen Ross questioned the status of Río Grande’s application for the permit and the property owner’s control of the space in question.

Ross noted that town staff had discovered a warranty deed and a mortgage both filed for the property in 1997 between the property owner Medina has leased the building from, Taos Properties Inc., and Taos Volunteer Fire Department. Ross said the documents muddled which entity held controlling interest of the property. Bellis said the president of Taos Properties, Ben Trujillo, would have to provide additional documentation clarifying ownership to move forward with their application.

“Since we’ve pointed this out as a deficiency, we would only move the application ahead conditionally if they can provide that,” Bellis said. “And this doesn’t seem to answer that question about who actually owns the property. Normally we would continue this, and make the hearing happen all over again until they can either correct that or if they’re unable to correct it, we would dismiss it as an incomplete application.”

Bellis’ request elicited skeptical looks and eye rolls from audience members, some of whom have been aware that the town manager has more than once expressed opposition to Medina’s project.

Bellis has also alluded to concerns over the director’s business record. According to the IRS, Río Grande’s former director failed to file tax forms for the nonprofit for a few years, causing their nonprofit status to be revoked in 2016. When Medina became director in 2018, he restored the organization’s nonprofit status.

Speaking before the committee, Taos Properties President Ben Trujillo said that his organization does own the property where the project has been proposed. While he and Medina agreed to provide the clarification requested by town staff regarding that status, Medina called the concerns “technicalities” that seemed to be motivated by Bellis’ opposition.

Documentation obtained by Taos News for Taos Properties Inc. confirmed that the business was in good standing as of Aug. 14 and does own the property where the detox center has been proposed.

What’s next?

After the lengthy delay, the meeting began with a discussion by committee members regarding the location of the detox center, and whether surrounding businesses or homeowners would be concerned over the security of the facility. At least one person in attendance was concerned that clients suffering from serious addictions might leave the building and wind up “in their backyard.”

“We need a detox, and without a detox, an addict might wind up in your backyard no matter where you live,” said Pavel Lukes, a local contractor and realtor who also sits on the town’s planning and zoning commission.

Medina said the new center will follow a “social detox” model for the first nine months of its operations. During that time, he said the facility will work to establish a “crisis stabilization unit,” which allows for on-site medical care provided by a physician, similar to what is known as a “medical detox center.” Medina said medical detox is a classification granted only to hospitals under federal law.

In both phases, Medina said the building would be secured, ensuring that clients who are cleared to stay at the facility wouldn’t be allowed to leave as they undergo treatment.

“This is not a drunk tank,” he explained. “Law enforcement cannot just drop clients off. We’re going to use the same model that worked for 35 years in Taos County. Our process will require a medical clearance by a doctor or health care provider, then they can be admitted. There’s not going to be a lot of traffic. They will only be admitted during business hours.”

Other questions at the meeting surrounded the financial viability of the project, a concern Bellis has also publicly expressed. As an example, Bellis has pointed to Tri-County’s precipitous financial collapse last year as a warning that projects backed by the town or county should only move forward if they have the proper financial support in place.

Medina has said initial funding will come from Taos County, which has yet to determine the exact amount it plans to give, but early discussions indicate a few hundred thousand dollars will help the new detox center with renovations and initial operational costs. Medina has also discussed with New Mexico Human Services Cabinet Secretary David Scrase the possibility of restoring $300,000 in perpetual funding, which Tri-County had received to run the former detox center.

If and when the center is able to gain accreditation as a crisis stabilization unit, Medina said it will also become eligible for federal Medicaid reimbursement for the services it provides.

Despite those lingering financial questions, Medina promised at the meeting that clients will be accepted into the detox center “for free,” regardless of whether they are insured.

The public comment section of the meeting saw the same outpouring of support that has been expressed at previous meetings held to discuss the need for a new detox center in Taos.

Bill Patten, chief executive officer at Holy Cross Medical Center, said that his physicians see the need on a daily basis for detox services in their emergency department, where alcoholics and opioid addicts are regular patients.

Magistrate Court Judge Ernest Ortega said the courts would be glad to have the detox center as a resource for nonviolent offenders with substance abuse problems.

Taos Pueblo Gov. Richard Aspenwind said, “You sit there as a tribal leader and wonder how to get a handle on this. I wholeheartedly stand behind this and it’s going to be a great beginning again for people who want to get sober. Granted, you’re not going to get everybody, but we will save some people.”

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