Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

So far, neighbors say, no problems with Operation PAR clinic in Spring Hill

BROOKSVILLE — Two and a half years ago, Jeff Phillips stood before the Hernando County Commission and urged the board to, as he put it, "simply do the right thing."

Phillips, who owns a Hungry Howie's on Spring Hill Drive near Kass Circle, was one of a parade of residents and business owners who came to a commission meeting in July 2011 to argue that a drug treatment clinic didn't belong in their neighborhood. The commission unanimously agreed, denying a zoning permit request by the nonprofit company Operation PAR. The company sued, a settlement was reached, and the clinic doors opened Oct. 1.

Three months later, Sheriff's Office data and observations from neighbors indicate the problems that Phillips and his fellow opponents feared have yet to materialize.

"It seems that maybe a mountain was made out of a molehill," Phillips said recently.

Gary Wenner isn't surprised to hear that sentiment.

"That's always the response," said Wenner, who serves as vice president of PAR's Medication Assisted Patient Services, or MAPS, program.

The Spring Hill clinic at 1245 Kass Circle is the first of its kind in Hernando, but PAR's fifth to offer MAPS. The program aims to wean addicts from opiates such as pain pills, heroin and Oxycontin. Patients receive a physical examination, laboratory workup and an assessment of their family support and employment status to create an individualized treatment plan that includes regular counseling.

Would-be neighbors have understandable concerns that turn out to be unfounded once the clinics opens, Wenner said.

"Aside from all the to-do early on, it's been very smooth," he said of the Spring Hill site.

The company applied in 2011 to open the clinic in the 5,300-square-foot former day care center. PAR officials noted a statewide study that said a methadone treatment clinic was desperately needed in Hernando; residents here who needed treatment were forced to drive to PAR's Port Richey clinic. Some couldn't afford the gas or fit the trip into their work schedules, while others had no transportation at all.

The clinic is open seven days a week. Hours vary depending on the day, but the latest the facility stays open is 4 p.m. Patients come between 5:30 and 11 a.m. Monday through Friday to receive a cup of liquid methadone and some juice to wash it down. The volume drops off in the afternoon as patients come for counseling and other services.

Dosing hours on Saturday and Sunday are from 6:30 to 10 a.m., then the clinic closes.

Dispatch records show sheriff's deputies have been to the clinic seven times between opening day and last Friday. Four of those calls were routine security checks initiated by the patrol deputy. Another was for an apparent false burglary alarm. Two were for prisoner transports; the clinic offers services to pregnant inmates.

So far, the clinic has not been the source of increased criminal activity or other troublesome issues, said sheriff's spokeswoman Denise Moloney.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes wasn't sure when the clinic planned to open, but he braced himself for complaints.

"I was waiting with bated breath," Dukes said.

None have come so far. All five commissioners said they've received no constituent correspondence about the clinic.

Phillips, whose Hungry Howie's is a couple of hundred yards away, said he's seen more foot traffic in the area since the clinic opened, but no troublesome loitering. The parking lot is busy during business hours but the clinic shuts down in the mid-afternoon, as PAR officials promised. He noted, though, that the clinic hasn't been open long.

"It's still early," Phillips said.

Tiffanie Willis lives in one of the clinic's closest neighbors, an apartment building situated west of the clinic. Her second-story unit overlooks the building and parking lot.

"Is that a methadone clinic?" Willis asked a reporter who knocked on her door recently.

Willis, 25, said she heard rumors last year that the clinic might be coming and told her leasing company that she likely would break her lease and move if the clinic opened. She didn't realize that the clinic has been seeing patients for three months.

"I haven't really noticed anything different," she said.

David Garcia, who lives a few doors down from Willis' unit, agreed.

"So far they're keeping their business over there," Garcia said.

Eugene Michael of Oldsmar, the owner of the apartment building and another to the north hired an attorney to urge the County Commission to deny the clinic's permit. Michael did not return a call from the Times, but his attorney, Barbara Wilhite, said her client and other opponents were wise to raise concerns when they did.

"Even if it turns out that nothing bad happens, that doesn't mean the residents weren't justified in having concerns, because once it's approved and it plays out poorly, there's not a lot you can do," Wilhite said.

The potential for problems could grow as the patient rolls do. The clinic surpassed 200 patients a few weeks ago, and PAR officials say the building has the capacity, though not the staff, to see about twice that number.

"It's good to hear they're being good neighbors," Commissioner Dave Russell said. "Let's hope it continues that way."

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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