County eyeing Berne senior center for counseling services, but seniors have reservations

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Senior Hilltown residents gather at Berne’s senior center for an ice-cream social. Karen Stark, a senior, is worried that allowing Albany County to conduct drug and mental-health services at the center will put seniors at risk.

BERNE — Albany County is considering the use of Berne’s senior center to provide rural access to drug and mental-health education and counseling, but the town’s seniors are apparently wary of giving up any portion of their dedicated building.

The county, using grant money provided by New York State’s Office of Addiction Services and Support, would “modify existing space to allow for discreet and confidential communication with individuals and families to ensure their privacy,” according to county documents posted on Berne’s website. 

In 2012, the town purchased the building at 1656 Helderberg trail — Route 443, halfway between Berne and East Berne —  which was built as the Foxenkill Grange Hall.

The renovations would allow all events at the center — which, pandemic notwithstanding, include a county lunch program for seniors, town meetings, and a Hilltown Seniors meeting — to continue as normal, but would use up an existing storage area and office space. There would also be potential for infrastructure enhancements, like improved Wi-Fi. 

“Basically,” Supervisor Sean Lyons said at the town board’s Jan. 20 meeting, “they would have a waiting area with an entrance that comes from the outside. They would have no access to the interior of the building other than the room that they build in that corner. All clients and mental-health professionals would enter through the rear door.”

But former Councilman Mathew Harris, who had been serving as the town board’s senior services liaison until his resignation from the board on Feb. 1, said that the seniors he spoke with were strongly against the proposal.

“I can tell you the term ‘violently opposed’ is not unreasonable here,” Harris said during the meeting. 

Karen Stark, a senior who coordinates the county’s senior meals program, which brings seniors into the facility three days a week for approximately three hours each day, told The Enterprise that she has concerns about her peers’ safety.

“It’s more or less that the people coming in [to the center] are mental or on drugs,” Stark said, “and my seniors are in there … I don’t want our seniors to be at any risk at all.”

She said that others in the group shared her view, though The Enterprise could not confirm any additional accounts on the record. 

It’s not clear what the hours of operation would be for drug and mental-health services, and the county would not provide The Enterprise with additional information.

“Any discussion is premature,” a county official said through Mary Rozak, who directs communications for Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy. “We continue to look at ways that we may expand services we offer in the Hilltowns and addiction treatment is on that list. Grants have time constraints and unfortunately we have not been able to finalize any plans at this time.”

Harris said during the January meeting that the town has until the end of March to decide whether or not to accept the proposal.

“We need to move quickly on this,” Harris said, “but we need to move carefully and make sure that everybody’s served.” 

Aside from the seniors, Harris, who said that he recognized the value of enhanced drug and mental-health treatment in the rural Hilltowns, explained during the meeting that the center is a community space and that “to have someone come … and take that space away is not terribly in our best interest.”

Lyons said that one of the benefits of the center, in the eyes of the county, is the wrap-around parking lot, which would allow clients to park discreetly, but Harris suggested there would be too much activity on-site for people to remain anonymous.

“Anyone who parks at this building,” Harris said, “around it, or the back of it, on the side of it, on the roof, I don’t care where you park — everyone and their grandmother’s going to know who’s come here, so I would say that there’s a very limited discreet and confidential type of access to this building.”

Harris also said, “While I am totally in favor of this program and all it has to offer, this may not be the best spot for it.”

“There probably isn’t a good spot for it, you know?” said Councilman Joel Willsey. “That’s the problem. Nobody wants this kind of thing.”

The town board will continue discussion around the proposal at its Feb. 10 regular meeting.

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