1. Opinion

Editorial: Hernando deserved better in drug treatment case

Published Sep. 2, 2014

Hernando County government poorly served the public with its continued bumbling of a Spring Hill drug treatment facility affiliated with the Church of Scientology. The five-year ordeal ended last week with a nearly $2 million settlement to Narconon Spring Hill Inc. and flummoxed county commissioners wondering how the clinic's operators circumvented the county's own code enforcement to house clients in an unlicensed facility within a residential neighborhood. Hernando residents deserve a county government that is more thoughtful and accountable than this expensive lesson illustrates.

Commissioners may have been in the dark about the code violations, but their lawyers weren't. Narconon's undocumented expansion came to light in 2013 as part of the housing discrimination lawsuit it filed against Hernando. The county's outside counsel highlighted the off-site facilities in arguing the county shouldn't be liable for exorbitant damages.

"We're the ones who have permitted them to lease houses and use houses off site so that they could continue to use this facility to get the counseling services that they say they need,'' the county's legal team said in its closing arguments.

It's hard to be indignant over an illegal clinic while arguing you blessed it so Narconon could serve its growing clientele.

That's just part of the bungling. The lawsuit could have been avoided if a past commission hadn't tried to win political points by pandering to neighbors opposing Narconon's proposal to expand its Cessna Drive clinic from 22 to 54 beds. A 1992 county permit allowed up to 150 beds on a larger parcel in what originally had been an adult congregate living facility. The site was later divided into smaller pieces, and Narconon obtained permission to open its substance abuse treatment center there in late 2008 and sought to expand just five weeks later. Both the county's professional staff and the appointed zoning board recommended approving the proposed expansion, but commissioners denied the request after hearing neighbors object to the type of clientele being served.

Narconon and the property owner, Toucan Partners, sued in federal court two years later and reached a settlement in August, a month after an appeals court had ordered a new trial to determine how much the county owed the companies because of the commission's discrimination toward recovering addicts. (Only two members of that commission, David Russell and Jim Adkins, remain in office.)

Narconon's behavior is far from exemplary. To serve additional clients paying up to $30,000 for three months of treatment, the company expanded to two houses and a commercial strip center absent a state license from the Department of Children and Families. DCF was unaware the center was providing services at unlicensed facilities in Hernando until the Tampa Bay Times inquired late last month. Narconon applied for a license for one site in a strip shopping center after the newspaper started asking questions, and DCF issued Narconon a temporary license to provide "intensive outpatient" services.

Narconon's ability to circumvent the rules and the county's lax oversight of its own codes illustrate the prevalent attitude toward government regulation: It is easier to act improperly and ask forgiveness later than to seek permission in the first place. Hernando residents deserve better from their county government.