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Opinion: Allegany County public health issues threaten economic stability

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Law enforcement officers agree, this is more than a criminal issue

By Andrew Harris

When Mike Hile was the terror of Wellsville, it was almost cute in hindsight. The village police were his family; sure they arrested him, but the also watched over him. He was the only game in town, looking back on it, almost a court jester of the village, fueled by who knows what. Sure other rogues were on and off the streets but I think Mike Hile’s total arrests in the village still stands as the record.

Today Mike Hile seems like a country gentleman who just got way to drunk and caused a fuss.

Today the population of vagrants has grown exponentially and most are not from Wellsville like Mike Hile was. Most of this population are both addicted and mentally ill. Some are in very poor physical condition and do not have reliable food or shelter. Sometimes it is hard to tell if they are the “victim or the crime.”

I only know this because I interact with them almost every day at the community gardens on Main and Fassett Street in the village. They mistake a garden space made for families and kids for place to party and camp out. The garden isn’t the only place they loiter. They heckle, use drugs, smoke, litter, and use the commercial Main Street district as a bathroom. Almost every business owner in downtown Wellsville has a horror story or two.

After many conversations with village law enforcement officers, county public safety officials, the Mayor of Wellsville, and county elected officials there is a consensus: This situation can’t continue.

This is a public health crisis. Even if this population chooses vagrancy, they are suffering from a range of health issues. From exposure to bed bugs to traumatic brain injury, life on the street is very harsh. Add drug addiction, mental illness, and abuse to the mix and this reality creates a wider issue for us all, one that we ultimately have to be responsible for.

Commerce is being threatened. I don’t mean to sound like a cold capitalist but because this problem is most acute in our business districts. In Wellsville, our typically picture perfect Main Street is often a place shoppers will avoid because of they don’t feel safe. The small business owners are frustrated and are being financially impacted by a population that seems to be growing. While impossible to quantify, Allegany County is losing sales tax revenue due to vagrancy. This public health crisis is stifling business and restricting our economic growth.

Our police officers are being marginalized and used as babysitters. I know this because often when vagrancy strikes the community garden I have two choices: Call the police or attempt to remove a highly intoxicated individual myself. So instead of patrolling or investigating, or protecting and serving, our highly trained officers are forced to play game similiar to “whack a mole.” They move vagrants away from one spot only to find them causing a disturbance a block away. The Wellsville Police department is always very patient and professional but also frustrated. We all know they have better things to do, such as root out the sources of the narcotics which threaten the entire community and are a root cause of the problem.

We are not living by the “Golden Rule.” I know it sounds corny in an age where civility seems to have been abandoned. As the mayor of Wellsville Randy Shayler said during a recent conversation, “These are human beings who we can do better by.” It is incumbent upon us to “do onto others,” and stop turning the other cheek. We all should put ourselves in the shoes of a these unfortunate souls, what would you want society to do?

Personally I’d rather be institutionalized, hospitalized, or incarcerated than allowed to defile myself and disrespect my community day after day. If one of my children go astray and wind up on the streets, I would want tough love for them. Every law enforcement official I’ve talked with feels the exact same way.

So why can’t the police take a stronger approach, more “tough love?”

The answer is two-fold: 1) New York State laws make arresting, releasing, and re-arresting for minor crimes a hopeless endeavor for police. 2) This is primarily a public health issue, not a criminal issue. Law enforcement professionals are not trained to counsel the mentally ill or provide healthcare.

This is largely a public health crisis and requires the services of the Allegany County Health Department and any other county resources that can be of assistance.

Wellsville and other major population centers in Allegany County need boots on the ground. Village governments need both assistance in making a plan and executing a plan to mitigate this public health crisis.

A vision: A county funded taskforce that actually patrols the streets and work with local police to ease the public health crisis, protect commercial districts, and provide services. This isn’t a new concept, and one being implemented throughout the nation.

Local leaders and law enforcement agree that public health resources are needed. County leaders acknowledge the issue impacts all county residents, if not personally, financially. Funding does not seem to be an issue as Allegany County has a large balance in the bank from the recent opioid lawsuit. Surely opioids have played a real part in creating this problem.

The time for wishing this problem away is long past. Allowing the problem to continue is a threat to our public health, our economy, and our moral duties to our fellow man.

Join us on Facebook for reader reactions and further discussion. If you don’t use social media, contact your county legislator to voice support(or dissent,) and urge them to create a plan of action.

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