NO POLITICIAN I KNOW wants to take on Albert Wassenhove. When there’s some public purpose he wants to accomplish, he turns into a kind of non-violent Terminator. He’ll be back, and back again and back…
A couple of years ago, Mr. Wassenhove, a Philmont resident who’s seldom at a loss for words, became concerned when he learned that the county was considering a plan to close the Pine Haven nursing home in the village and transfer residents to a private facility proposed for Valatie. As it turned out, plenty of people agreed with him. But popular support doesn’t necessarily translate into political results.
Mr. Wassenhove understands that. So he went to every Town Board in the county and pleaded his case that the move made no sense; if the county needed a new nursing home — and it does — it owns property adjacent to Pine Haven that would serve quite well. He persuaded town and village boards to adopt resolutions in support of keeping Pine Haven in Philmont, and he gathered reams of petitions signed by regular citizens opposed to the plan. Eventually county leaders saw the light and developed a plan for a new facility in Philmont.
Now Mr. Wassenhove is back with an exciting idea for using the old (current) 120-bed Pine Haven facility once the county finally moves to its new nursing home. He envisions it reopening as a regional service center for veterans that would address the immediate needs like homelessness and offer some types of medical care. He foresees job training and counseling there too. He says that last year the county transported over 1,000 veterans elsewhere for services, and some of those services could be offered at the new center. The closest Veterans Administration hospital is the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, although a satellite facility in Catskill offers some services.
There is a regional model for this type of approach to assisting veterans with transitional housing and other needs. It was developed by the Rev. Peter Young in the Albany suburbs and in western New York and is now organized as Peter Young Housing, Industries & Treatment (www.pyhit.com). Fr. Young attended a meeting of local, state and federal officials this week at Pine Haven to discuss the options and to view some graphics of what the new center might look like.
But wait. How can we talk about expanding government services just as Washington has embarked on efforts to cut government spending and economic progress staggers under the weight of cruelly high unemployment? Add to those factors the likelihood that as welcoming as the community will be, residents will seek assurances of adequate funding to address the care and the security requirements of any veterans coping with extreme symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and of substance abuse.
And then the question arises of how quickly something like this could happen. The county has yet to submit its application to state authorities for a document called a certificate of need, the first step toward building a new nursing home. At the Pine Haven meeting this week, Mr. Wassenhove said a county official told him that the certificate, now well behind the schedule originally set, would go to Albany within a month.
State approval for the new county nursing home won’t answer the question of where the money will come from to build the new nursing home, let alone the funds for the veterans center. Right now the county is planning to borrow to buy the old Walmart building in Greenport to house the Department of Social Services and it still has the nearly empty Ockawamick School campus in Claverack. County taxpayers could go into greater debt for more building projects, but that has political as well as financial risks. And risks invite delays.
The county should submit the certificate of need for the nursing home as soon as possible or explain to the public what’s holding up the process. That would move both projects a step closer to reality.
Even then the list of hurdles, many of them big ones, goes on. But naysayers, skeptics and outright opponents face a couple of problems too. This service center for veterans is a really good idea, and as more military personnel return from Afghanistan and Iraq, the need for facilities like this will only grow. This project can be built if the county and private sector set their minds to it. Anybody who has any doubts about that hasn’t met Al Wassenhove.