York County is planning to spend $45 million to construct a 58-bed regional recovery center, a public safety training facility and a 30-unit apartment building.
Supporters say it is the largest local investment to address Maine’s intersecting crises of opioid use, housing shortages and the need for public safety workers.
“We’re trying to propose some semblance of a regional solution to this problem because that’s what counties can do,” York County Manager Greg Zinser said.
From January to August of this year, 409 Mainers died of a suspected or confirmed drug overdose, 47 of whom were from York County, according to the most recent state monthly overdose report. There were 6,256 nonfatal overdoses across the state, though that number is likely much higher since not all overdoses reversed in private settings, like a person’s home, are reported to the state.
In 2022, 723 Maine people died of a drug overdose, 103 of whom were from York County.
At the same time the state grapples with the continuing overdose epidemic, it faces a historic housing crisis. Maine needs to build as many as 84,000 new housing units in the next seven years to remedy “historic underproduction” and meet future needs, according to a report published earlier this month by MaineHousing, the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
York County alone, according to the report, needs to build between 10,100 and 11,100 units by 2030 — more than any other county in the state, including Cumberland, its most populous.
Meanwhile, public safety agencies, from small municipal fire and EMS departments to the Maine State Police, are dealing with severe staffing shortages largely driven by low wages, an aging workforce and poor recruitment and retention, several police, fire, EMS and local leaders testified before the Legislature earlier this year.
“No other governmental entity has approached these critical issues with such vigor,” Zinser wrote in a letter late last month to the Maine Recovery Council, which oversees half of the $235 million in opioid settlement funds Maine expects to receive from the drug companies accused of fueling the opioid epidemic. In addition to Zinser, 20 others signed the letter, including some county commissioners, York County District Attorney Katheryn Slattery and Sheriff Bill King.
County commissioners last year approved spending about $15 million each — three-quarters of the $40 million the county received from the American Rescue Plan Act — on a new recovery center and training facility for police, fire, EMS and other public safety workers.
It also approved spending all of its $4.6 million in opioid settlement funds to go to the recovery center; because the money is dispersed over 16 years, the county will borrow money from itself and pay it back over the life of the settlement, Zinser said.
The county also gave Sanford Housing Authority $500,000 in ARPA funds to jump start development of a “housing-first” apartment building for people in recovery from substance use disorder or in active use and to convert some of its existing housing stock into recovery housing.
But even with additional federal funding secured this year by U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, the county is $7 million short on funding for the recovery center and training facility. Committed to funding these projects in full and hoping to avoid taking out a loan, the county sent a letter to the Recovery Council for help, Zinser said.
As of Wednesday, Zinser said he had not heard back. The letter was not discussed at the council’s monthly meeting the day before, on Oct. 10.
The recovery center, which will have the county’s first detoxification program, will fill a critical need in the county, several people who spoke with The Maine Monitor said.
“We’re in a crisis. We’re notoriously short on any bed capacity. Fifty-eight beds makes a huge difference,” said Ryan Paige, co-founder and chief operating officer of AccessDirect Recovery Network.
“There’s nothing of this caliber being put into place,” he said.
In addition to the eight detoxification beds, it will have 36 residential and outpatient treatment beds, plus eight “observation beds.” The observation beds are for the middle-of-the-night calls for help, a safe place where first responders or family members can take someone who doesn’t belong in a jail cell or an emergency room to stay for the night until a clinician can assess them in the morning.
“Nothing in York County, or the State of Maine, exists to address the challenges discussed in this letter. This is an opportunity for Maine to become a national model in substance use treatment service delivery,” Zinser wrote to the Recovery Council.
The $45 million price tag is double the entire county budget. Despite the sticker shock, York County Sheriff Bill King said it will be money well spent.
“It’s a very aggressive plan, but I think it’s the best plan I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“I’m a fiscal conservative … [but] it costs so much to incarcerate people. And if we really do believe that this is a disorder and that we need to treat it medically, I think that this is the best option.”
The work there will complement the medication-assisted treatment program at the York County Jail as well, Zinser and King said.
The recovery center and the training facility will be built on 25 acres owned by the county on Layman Way in Alfred, next door to the York County Sheriff’s Department and county jail.
The services at the recovery center will be available for people leaving the jail as well as referrals from outside agencies or individuals. And recognizing that homelessness and substance use often go hand in hand, Zinser said, the county partnered with Sanford Housing Authority to build no-barrier housing.
Originally, the county wanted to do it on the same land in Alfred, but local zoning prevented that. Instead, the 30-unit apartment building will be in Sanford, though the exact location is still in the works, Sanford Housing Authority executive director Diane Small said.
The program will be modeled after a Preble Street-run housing-first, permanent housing program in Portland called Huston Commons. There, residents have a standard lease and the building is staffed 24/7 with some services, like counseling or case management, available on-site.
While no illicit substances are allowed in the building, residents do not have to be sober to live there, Small said.
“What that does is once people can deal with their trauma, can get food in their belly, have a shower, have a safe place to sleep then they might be more interested in or able to work on their recovery,” she said.
The project is still in early stages, Small said. Eventually, Avesta Housing will be brought on as the developer and York County Community Action Corp. will be the on-site service provider.
In the meantime, the housing authority is planning to convert some of its existing units into recovery housing for people leaving treatment at the recovery center.
“Housing really is the key to everything. Stable, affordable, decent housing is the answer for almost every issue we have,” Small said.
From the medication-assisted treatment program at the jail, treatment services at the recovery center and the no-barrier housing in Sanford, Zinser said the county is creating a continuum of care for people with substance use disorder so that “we’re with them for the long haul to find them and get them the treatment that they need and deserve to treat the disease.”
York County is “very progressive,” said Paige, a Biddeford native who is in long-term recovery. “To see the amount of work that’s going into not only the substance use disorder crisis and the opioid crisis but also the housing crisis, it just — it makes me happy.”
The recovery center and training facility projects are well into the design and development phases, and the county is currently securing necessary permits.
Zinser said they’re hoping to break ground in late spring of next year. Construction is anticipated to take 18 to 24 months.
The training facility will create a local hub for police, fire, EMS, corrections or other public safety programs to fulfill training requirements or create professional development opportunities.
“It’s going to be a blessing and it’s going to save training costs, travel costs for all these towns,” York County Commissioner Donna Ring said. “We’ll have our people much better trained because it’s going to be convenient. And I think it’s a tremendous asset to the county of York.”
The county is partnering with York County Community College to offer training and education courses, said Cait Grant, YCCC’s Dean of Economic and Workforce Development.
“I also think there’s an ancillary benefit of having a recovery center and a first responder training center basically close by because I think that will aid in the … destigmatization of people with a substance use disorder,” Bill King said.