Monday, December 2, 2013

Zoning Hearing: N-Town vs. Gaudenzia

Okay, we've all had a long holiday weekend, but it's time I let everyone know what went on at that zoning hearing last week.

First Gaudenzia's lawyer, Vern Anastasio, got up and immediately said how fortunate we all were to have a multi-million dollar corporation in our midst. He repeated this many times. Remember that, we'll come back to it. He said Gaudenzia's plan is to consolidate 3 of their other locations at 166 W. Main, for a total of 72 adminstrative workers and 6 counselors, with an annual payroll of 3 million. He said that no medicines would be dispensed on the site, that services would be counseling only, and that Gaudenzia's clients were no different than the clients of a law firm (I was thinking they might even be the same people--like the drug user I talked about last week, who ended up needing a lawyer for 4 arrests).  In the 10 or 15 minutes that Mr. Anastasio spoke, he never mention the words "drug" or "alcohol" once. He said that an average of only 4.5 clients would be onsite at any one time, and would use the back door. That 96% of the activites at 106 W. Main would be administrative and only 4% counseling. And also that 25% of the total staff live in Norristown, with a combined income of 1 million dollars. He also repeated these points many times.

We also heard testimony from 2 workers at Gaudenzia who live in Norristown, 2 women, one black, one handicapped, chosen, I assume, to appeal to our emotions. They both claimed that Gaudenzia was the best company on earth, and that they'd hate to move out of Norristown if Gaudenzia can't stay.

The CEO of Gaudenzia testified. He explained that each facility was licensed separately, so that services in one facility couldn't simply be sent to another place. He said that since Gaudenzia has been at 106 West Main, they've turned the neighborhood around. He took credit for bringing Almaz Cafe and Bahn Mi Bistro to West Main (say what?). He said that Gaudenzia clients never hang around outside their building on Marshall St--they were clients of some other company. He also said that, since Gaudenzia is tax exempt, he'd pledge to pay the equivalent of what would be paid in taxes for that property to Norristown for the next 8 years.

The Zoning Board then asked for clarification on some points: Services? FINALLY the words "drug and alcohol counseling" were uttered. Building hours? 8 am to 8 pm, weekdays and some hours on Saturday for any employees who wanted to do extra work. Employees who lived in Norristown? It came out that the local workers lived in Norristown AND the surrounding area, but that it was about 24 employees, closer to 30%.

4 Norristonians, including me, gave testimony against Gaudenzia's plan. 3 were cross-examined by Mr. Anastasio with intimidating questions like "Who told you to come here tonight?" He of course didn't realize that the resident was a regular at zoning meetings, but his intimidation definitely kept others from going up to the podium and putting their opposition on record. I pointed out some questions that needed to be answered: What was the MAXIMUM number of clients that would be onsite at any one time? How many group therapy sessions and how many in each group? How many employees lived within Norristown's borders and how many were homeowners? I also suggested a compromise, mainly to see how it would be received--I suggested the 96% administrative staff stay at 106 W. Main and the counseling services be moved up into the healthcare district around Montgomery Hospital. If it were only 6 counselors, they wouldn't need that much space.

While cross-examining another resident, Mr. Anastasio said specifically that he would answer my question about maximum clients. Since there were only 6 counselors, they could only see one client at a time, the answer was 6.

The Zoning Board called the CEO back to the podium and reiterated most of my questions. Now we heard that the group therapy sessions could have up to 10 drug users in them and there could be 2 going at once. Group sessions would take place Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday (so the building wouldn't just be open for workaholics), mostly between 5 and 8 pm on the weekdays, but possibly in the afternoon, too. So there could be more than 20 drug users present in and around the building at one time.

That was Lie #1 exposed.

Lie #2? Employees who live in Norristown. Only 10 workers, with an average income around 20 or 25 thousand. They didn't ask about homeownership.

Lie #3 came out in the residents' testimony. Gaudenzia claimed their clients never hang around outside their building. One of the residents had family members who were Gaudenzia clients, and testified that his family members DID loiter around the building after their sessions. And seriously, how would the CEO know if they did or not? The danger of 20 or more of them coming out of the building and hanging around is, of course, that every drug dealer in the area will be there watiing for them.

But perhaps the biggest lie was #4. When the Zoning Board asked the CEO why the drug counseling activities couldn't be done in another part of town, after all of Mr. Anastasio's bragging about Gaudenzia being a multi-million dollar corporation with a local payroll of 3 million, the CEO claimed that they couldn't afford to rent office space for 6 counselors, not even in Norristown where rentals are pretty inexpensive, or where they could even buy one of those empty medical offices up on Dekalb Street, probably dirt cheap.

As for the suggestion of compromise, the CEO's attitude was juvenile. If Gaudenzia couldn't get its way, they'd take their marbles and leave Norristown altogether. They owned land near West Chester, he said. They'd build a headquarters there. (They can't afford to rent a little extra space in N-town for 6 counselors, yet they have the bucks to build a whole new headquarters buidling outside of West Chester?) If it were up to me, I'd call their bluff. Companies who lie and act like brats aren't exactly good neighbors. Norristown deserves better.

The Zoning Board decided to take 45 days to decide. They'll issue their decision on December 19th. At this point, I think maybe all residents can do is band together and send a petition around, like we did with Pennrose.  You all need to decide: Do we want drug users wandering around downtown, discouraging other businesses from coming to Main St.? Do we want a tax-exempt corporation who after 8 years will stop generating revenue for our town?

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