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A proposed a mental health crisis and recovery center is planned for West St. Paul as neighbors raise concerns. Dakota County and Guild Services are relocating and expanding an existing facility to fill a needed gap in mental health services. Residents voiced their complaints during a three-hour Planning Commission meeting.
The Proposed Center
Where: The northeast corner of the Dakota County’s Northern Service Center property along Livingston Avenue.
What: A 16,000-square-foot building with 16 beds to house intensive residential treatment, crisis services, and a “welcoming place to go” 24/7 staffed by the Dakota County crisis team.
Who’s running it: Dakota County and Guild Services (an organization that has worked in the community for decades).
The crisis center will be located on the northeast corner of the Dakota County Northern Service Center.
- This fills a needed gap in mental health services, allowing people in crisis to stay in the community for treatment and have an easier transition.
- Assessment and triage: When someone has a mental health crisis, there aren’t a lot of options. They often end up in hospitals or the emergency room. This facility is a third option and a place that police can direct people to and they can be assessed for treatment.
- Residential treatment: Two treatment options, a crisis service for short-term care up to 10 days, as well as intensive treatment for up to 90 days.
- Replacement: The facility would replace three homes in South St. Paul that have outlived their usefulness.
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Public comments stretched for nearly 40 minutes. Ten neighbors raised a number of concerns speaking out against the project. Concerns included:
- Safety: One resident pointed to a whistleblower lawsuit from a Guild employee and catalogued calls for missing persons and disturbing the peace at the South St. Paul facility.
- “We are committed to keeping our neighborhood a safe place,” said Mark Drake. “We feel this center would dramatically reduce security and safety in our community.”
- Not here: Most residents acknowledged the need for mental health services, but questioned the location close to a residential neighborhood and about 1,000 feet from a school and church.
- “I am in favor of having a mental health center for our community, where you put that, I think, is vitally important. Obviously it’s needed,” said Mark Kom, a pastor at Crown of Life Lutheran Church and School. “When there is someone in crisis, they don’t think clearly. It’s not their fault. But they don’t think clearly. So my mind goes to the 185 children on our campus. If someone is not thinking clearly, you don’t know what they’re capable of doing. And we all read the news, we know what they’re capable of doing.”
- “I’m not biased, I’m not prejudice,” said Joel Knoepfler, after recounting his family’s struggles with mental health. “But I strongly feel they don’t belong in this neighborhood.”
- Lack of notice: Several people complained about a lack of public notice for this project.
One person spoke in support and four emails were read into the record in favor of the project:
- “A place like this would have allowed me to stay in the community and would have expedited my recovery,” said a former local resident who described his own mental health crisis.
Response to Concerns
- Police Chief: It was noted that West St. Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon had an opportunity to weigh in on the project. While he had initial concerns, after talking with the South St. Paul and Savage police chiefs he was fully supportive. His main concern was that it’s not big enough and there needs to be more capacity. (State licensing limits capacity to 16 beds, so it’s as large as it can be without upgrading to a hospital license.) Update: A more complete statement from Sturgeon is added below.
- Facility clients: A representative from Guild said people are safer when they are receiving services. It’s not a lockdown facility, it’s voluntary treatment. The facility serves a specific level of patient based on their state-issued license, which limits it to sub-hospital care. These are patients who are not deemed an imminent threat to themselves or the community.
- Sites: Dakota County noted that they looked at seven or eight different locations.
- The proposal was initially pitched to City Council and shared with the public during the September 27 City Council work session. It also came before the Environmental Committee on November 2.
- Dakota County hosted community engagement sessions, including one on October 18 and another on November 10, with another planned for December 1. Dakota County said they welcome dialogue and had offered one-on-one meetings with concerned residents.
- Dakota County also reached out to the media with stories in the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press in February, and St. Paul Voice in September, and announced community meetings on social media (in our review of their social media accounts we saw it mentioned once).
- The city mailed notification to residents within 350 feet of the project, per state statute and city code, which amounted to 40 properties (many of which were within the distance of the entire Dakota County Government Center, but further from the actual crisis center project; see map below). (The city recently discussed a revised communication plan with standardized minimums for these types of notifications, though proposed changes wouldn’t have impacted this notification process.)
Map of notified properties: X marks where the proposed crisis center is located. Notifications went to properties within 350 feet, measured property line to property line from the Dakota County Northern Service Center property.
Approval: Planning Commission recommended approval of four measures related to the crisis center, including a zoning change (passed 6-2), the site plan with additional conditions to expand the fence on the north and east sides (passed 7-1), a conditional use permit (passed 7-1), and the plat (passed 7-1).
- November 28: City Council informational meeting (no action).
- December 1: Community engagement meeting.
- December 12: City Council public hearing and action.
- Then the Dakota County board of commissioners will approve the project.
- Construction is expected to start in summer 2023 with an opening in fall 2024.
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Nov. 17, 2022 Update: Planning Commission Chair Speaks Out
Morgan Kavanaugh, chair of the Planning Commission, spoke in support of the project in a Twitter thread this morning: “In my 9 years on Planning Commission, I have heard a lot during public comments. But for the first time, I left a meeting disheartened. … this is the first time I’ve had to deal with unruly audience members shouting things from the audience after the public hearing was closed.”
November 18, 2022 Update: West St. Paul Police Chief on Mental Health Crisis Center
We spoke with West St. Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon to get his reaction to the police reports residents raised concerns about and his general thoughts about the crisis center. He noted that he would be meeting with the residents on Monday, would be speaking to the press on Tuesday, and will attend the community engagement meeting on December 1.
Part of the site selection process: “We met and reviewed several sites throughout the city and it was determined that the Northern Service Center property would be the most feasible site for a number of reasons—it’s on a bus route, it’s close to Robert Street where people can go get food at Cub Foods and do their shopping close by, and other auxiliary services are available at the service center. They can basically walk everywhere.”
Spoke with other police chiefs: “I reached out to my counterpart in Savage because Guild has a similar facility there. I learned about the differences in the two facilities and learned that Savage has not had any serious issues. Then I talked to South St. Paul Police Chief Brian Wicke about the three houses they currently have. Yes, there are police calls, but there are no serious crimes.”
Treating people who are already here: “There’s always some level of concern, especially when they’re treating individuals with mental health and other disabilities. Even in the best run facility there will always be concerns. West St. Paul already has a number of group homes in the city and we get calls to those locations when people are reported missing. Unlike some of those places, this facility is totally voluntary. They don’t meet the criteria for hospitalization, so they are not deemed a threat to themselves or others. They’re there knowing they need help and they’re there willingly. Are we going to get calls for missing persons? Sure we are. But looking at what’s happened historically here in West St. Paul, and even the facilities in South St. Paul, none of these residents has ever committed a crime against a person in the community when they are in that type of crisis, that I’m aware of. Are they gonna run through a yard? Maybe, but we have people running through yards all the time. These people are in our community already, whether they’re in a house or homeless or what have you. But this is a place where they can get off the street, or get away from whatever is causing their crisis situation, get them into a stabilized facility to seek treatment to get a more permanent stabilization plan in place to help them in the long run. These people are not going to go out and terrorize the community—I just don’t see that.”
A first step: “There’s such a need for mental health services and I hope this is just the first step in expanding resources in our community. I have no issues with it. We’re going to continue to work with social services and Guild to address any issues as they come up. I believe it will be a good partnership between the city, Guild, and Dakota County.”
November 23, 2022 Update: Council Action and Recommended Conditions
The project will be presented to City Council at the November 28 meeting, though action will be pushed back to the December 12 meeting, along with a public hearing (though Council is not required to hold a public hearing).
The agenda packet for the November 28 meeting outlines several concerns and responses, specifically addressing public safety. It also notes that the city is required by law to allow this use in the city.
More information on the project, including an FAQ, fact sheet, and presentation are available from Dakota County.
November 26, 2022 Update: More Coverage
- Local site: A group of residents, led by Mark Drake, has set up a website to advocate against the location of the crisis center.
- Local coverage: The Pioneer Press reported on the story.
November 29, 2022 Update: City Council Meeting
The November 28 City Council meeting covered the proposed crisis center, including comments from the police chief about safety, the city attorney confirming that the city can’t deny approval, and Council members weighing in.
December 2, 2022: Neighborhood Meeting
More than 80 people attended the December 1 neighborhood meeting, prompting coverage from the Star Tribune and KTSP.
- Neighbor input:
- “I don’t think county officials or the Guild are being very forthcoming about what their clients are up to,” said Mark Drake. (Star Tribune)
- “This is a 24/7 drop-in facility,” Drake said. “We know there’s not security, we know that cameras are not going to be part of it.” (KSTP) Note: On Monday, city staff shared proposed conditions for approval and one of them is security cameras covering the entire exterior of the facility.
- “We came because we do not want our neighborhood to be represented by those few loud voices,” Jessica Mager, who lives three blocks from the proposed site and supports it, told Thursday’s gathering. (Star Tribune)
- Police input:
- Randy Boyden, a South St. Paul police officer designated to handle mental health concerns, said police “don’t have a lot of issues with Guild” and that the nonprofit makes the effort to call police proactively if a client “is spinning out of control or dysregulating.” (Star Tribune
- Greg Altman, West St. Paul’s police officer who deals with mental health concerns, said the benefits of a Guild facility outweigh any negatives. (Star Tribune
December 13, 2022 Update: Council Approves
The West St. Paul City Council unanimously approved the project as four out of five residents in the public hearing supported the project.
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What a great addition to our community. I would encourage those who are fearful to review other neighborhoods that have mental and chemical health facilities in them that have not proved a problem. Here in Mendota Heights we have people who live in a mentally ill half way house in our neighborhood and there has never been any issues with them.
My concerns are that it says it will be replacing 3 houses that have outlived their usefulness instead of making more room when Dakota County Crisis is already unable to respond to crisis. If this was to be built it needs to be additional assistance and not in place of the three homes that would be lost. The community needs more support and availability for mental health resources. The amount of beds is very few for the large amount of need that the community has. I expect this will have a very long wait list to get in and will only address adult mental health needs. Pediatric/Adolescent Mental Health needs should be addressed too.
A Pro are a person can likely be working with services from the main Service Center Building such as signing up for medical, housing, or food support especially if this is used as a place to have someone go when they come out of the hospital but have nowhere to go (common).
A Con is this doesn’t replace the loss of the homes and the need for more community support that is needed for both adult and pediatric mental health as adolescent mental health issues have been on the rise as well. While this is a drop in facility, meaning people can go at any time and many times they have scheduled events or classes and support functions, it does not replace the need for additional community resources being lost and the number of beds specifically. It is a very small number for the number of people in need.
Please do note – it says these beds are only for patients/people who are not a threat to themselves or others and this means these are not the most ill patients who present a danger. If they did, they would need to be referred to a higher level of care.