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MORE REACTION: Residents, officials concerned after unexpected Hillside closure announcement

In a move that stunned many local residents – Hillside Family of Agencies announced that they would not renew a lease in the Town of Varick to continue operation of a residential facility.

The news was significant because the facility is one of the County’s biggest employers, and serves at-risk youth. Hillside assumed the lease for the residential campus in December 2004, at the request of New York State Office of Children and Family Services leaders after a previous residential service provider ceased operations at that site.

The campus is located on the site of the former Seneca Army Depot and serves 79 youth from across the state. They employ 235 full- and part-time staff. While a transition plan is in place to move some of those staff over to other facilities across the region – more than 170 jobs will be lost from the closure.

Given that proximity of work is crucial in small, rural communities like those in Seneca County – some of those roles may not transition as easily as one may believe.

“If my job is in Rochester, I’ll live in Rochester,” said one Hillside employee who did not want to be identified. She didn’t say whether she was among the 60 who would be up for relocation – but said that employees will have to make the decisions that are best for them, and their families. “‘Get a job somewhere else’ is what everyone wants to say when something like this happens – but there has to be stability,” she added.

Employment stability continues to be a challenge in Seneca. Whether it’s perceived, or a real, tangible thing.

Bob Aronson, Executive Director of the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency said that he was hopeful that individuals impacted would find ‘gainful employment’ elsewhere in Seneca. He even noted the high-volume of businesses in Seneca County who are hiring.

“Losing Hillside and the associated jobs is a sad occurrence. Hillside is an organization that literally saves lives, and having been involved with them has been a personally enriching experience through the years,” Aronson explained. “We are hopeful that a good number of the affected employees will find new positions quickly. Fortunately unemployment in this region is historically low and many employers will be eager to recruit people, even if it means retraining for new skills.”

He says that interested employers have already reached out to the IDA, who they are connecting with Hillside. “The County’s workforce development team and our regional Workforce Investment Board are already acting to help through their rapid response team,” Aronson added. “The IDA is naturally disappointed that this portion of the depot will fall back in our hands, but we will assess the assets and do our best to market the facility for a new development possibility.”

Individualized plans for all Varick youth are being developed, in collaboration with family members and county and state partners, to ensure seamless continuity of care as those youth move to other residential campuses and programs, according to Hillside.

That transition for youth will be complete by Dec. 31, 2019.

Varick staff whose positions will not be moving to other campuses will be supported in pursuing other positions within the agency or with other employers in the region, if they prefer. Hillside will be engaging with area employers to provide on-site job fairs and other resources in support of affected staff, according to a release from Hillside.

Several key considerations led Hillside leadership to determine the long-term lease should not be renewed. Those considerations included national and statewide trends concerning the demand for residential treatment services; challenges concerning recruitment and retention of direct-care staff on the Varick Campus; under- utilized residential services capacity across other Hillside-owned campuses; and necessary but cost- prohibitive improvements that would be required to the Campus buildings.

Hillside operates campuses in Rochester, Chili, Auburn, Bath, and Greene, New York.

“We have carefully and thoroughly considered all of our options, and have determined this approach will be best for the youth we serve, their families, Hillside employees and our Family of Agencies as a whole,” said Maria Cristalli, President and CEO of Hillside Family of Agencies. “Over the last 14 years, we have created specialty residential treatment programs on the Varick Campus that have advanced our field and improved outcomes for countless youth and families. That work will continue on other Hillside campuses, where staff and youth can work in a safer and more updated environment.”

“While there will always be some youth who need high-quality residential treatment services, there are now more options for meeting the needs of some of those youth. Further, Hillside is facing the same challenges all of our agencies are in recruiting and retaining an adequate workforce because of the low salaries we are funded to offer. I anticipate that our field will see more residential treatment reductions like this in the future,” said James Purcell, CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), the membership organization for nonprofit child-welfare agencies in New York State.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) said ensuring gaps in service are covered is a major priority. “The decision by Hillside to not renew its lease at the Varick campus will impact hundreds of families and employees in the region. This will be an important transition period for everyone associated with the facility. Moving forward, it will be critical to avoid any gaps in services provided to the young people in Hillside programs, and every possible accommodation must be made to find employment for the dedicated workers who now face uncertain futures,” Kolb said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Shipley (R-Waterloo) expressed his disappointment in the closure of the Hillside units. “The closure of the Hillside Campus and loss of their jobs is a tragic blow to our local economy. Upstate population loss and negative business climate issues continue to be a major issue of concern for all New Yorkers,” he said.

Supervisor Cindy Lorenzetti (D-Fayette) said she has concerns about healthcare more broadly; and what this closure will do to Seneca County.

“The closing of Hillside at the Varick campus is of great concern,” she said. “The growing trend in the healthcare field regarding funding sources being less, is leading to closure of specialized treatment centers.”

She called on the state’s two legislative chambers, and Gov. Cuomo to “realize that many individuals need the structure of 24/7 facilities to manage them in their recovery process.”

Lorenzetti called on the state to pay direct care staff workers more. “Albany enacted wage increases in 2017 for fast food workers and now must do the same for those who take care of our most-vulnerable populations,” she added. “Albany can find a way to fund what is needed and look at other state mandates that don’t need to be in place.”

Sen. Pam Helming called on the state to step into action. “The employees of Hillside have given their heart and soul to serve troubled youth from across New York State for the last 15 years. We stand ready to do everything possible to work with the New York State Department of Labor and other local agencies to ensure that the employees affected by this decision receive the services and assistance they need. We also need to ensure that local children who are currently served by the Varick campus will be transitioned to programs in the community that can meet their needs. It is important for New York State to work with Hillside students and their parents to make sure these children continue to get the education, therapy, and supports to lead healthy and successful lives. As the New York State Senator representing several hundred Hillside employees and their families, I remain committed to doing everything possible to assist these individuals during this difficult time,” Helming said.

The Supervisor said she’s hopeful that those who are losing jobs will find work. Specifically, she was hopeful that these individuals would be able to work in a healthcare field – as the opioid crisis continues to grow; and state priorities continue to sit elsewhere when it comes to treatment and services. “We have a baby boomer population and an opioid crisis that we need to be prepared for beginning immediately.”

Reporting in this story by News Director Josh Durso. He hosts a pair of podcasts on FingerLakes1.com. Check out Inside the FLX and Sunday Conversation each week on FingerLakes1.com.  Email tips and leads to josh@fingerlakes1.com.

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