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The psych center by the numbers

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The state’s announcement that the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center would no longer be an inpatient facility in a major realignment of the state’s mental health infrastructure was a big blow to Ogdensburg and the north country.

The lost jobs at the facility are going to be difficult to replace, no matter how many it turns out to be. The state is putting as much lipstick on this sow as it can, saying it would increase the facility’s outpatient and community-based treatment, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that alone is not going to save 500 jobs.

And while the community’s mobilization to fight this final determination with a quickly drawn task force was impressive, taking this decision by the numbers would appear to indicate no one should be surprised that the logical geographical arguments the task force put forward were easily trumped by math.

With the announcement that Syracuse and Utica would host two “Centers for Excellence,” with youths housed in the state’s Utica facility and adults in Syracuse’s, the numbers become sadly clear. The population of the four-county north country region most affected by this decision totals 311,000; the populations of Oneida County (233,500) and Onondaga County (467,000) are well more than twice the north country’s population. When you add in the area covered by the Syracuse and Utica metropolitan areas, and including adjacent counties not within those areas, the two Centers for Excellence have a million people in their immediate service area compared with a tad over 300,000 here.

If you are saying “This should not be a numbers game,” you are right. But that does not mean you are realistic. Politics is numbers, plain and simple. There are more state legislators in Onondaga and adjacent counties than there are in the entire north country. When you add in the other counties that will be positively affected (read that, not negatively affected) by this decision, it isn’t unfair to suggest the numbers killed off St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center just as sure as hunters killed off the buffalo.

In fact, it would be interesting to see which direction state Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, would be pulled in this fight if it ever goes to the legislature. Does he vote for Ogdensburg (his district in St. Lawrence County includes Massena and Potsdam but not Ogdensburg) or for Utica/Syracuse? Somebody should ask Mr. Griffo that question and see if it makes him dance just a little.

This is not about partisan politics. It is sheer numbers. There is not sufficient political weight in the north country to win a battle against the Central New York region. If all the legislators of both parties banded together across Northern New York — and they will if this ever gets to the Legislature — there is no chance they can prevail.

However, don’t hold your breath waiting to see if this gets to the Legislature. It won’t. Another thing about the numbers game is, the Assembly alone can kill any upstate initiative it wishes to, and it will wish to kill this one. And because party lines won’t mean much in this battle (see the Griffo comments above), there also is no incentive in the Senate to tackle this bureaucratic boondoggle.

The votes were counted and the tally known before this decision was announced.

The north country wasn’t wounded in the round of prison closings because, very frankly, this wide-open space is a perfect place to have prisons. That decision was also about numbers — a lack of numbers. The more remote the location, the better for prison siting.

But it has been wounded in the mental health shakeup, and that wound is going to leave scars. Despite the best efforts of a dedicated task force, this paint-by-numbers picture is dried and hanging on an Albany wall.

Perry White is the city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Email him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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