DoH district office to stay—for now—in Monticello

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 3/1/22

MONTICELLO, NY — The proposed move of the Department of Health (DoH) regional district office from Monticello to Middletown has been a contentious one.

An anonymous letter circulated early …

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DoH district office to stay—for now—in Monticello

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MONTICELLO, NY — The proposed move of the Department of Health (DoH) regional district office from Monticello to Middletown has been a contentious one.

An anonymous letter circulated early in January, informing the county that the DoH was considering moving the office. Since then, local health officials and local and state legislators have advocated against the move, declaring it to be against the best interests of Sullivan County and the health of its residents.

Their efforts have borne preliminary fruit, with the DoH agreeing to leave the district office in place for now and to reconsider moving it altogether.

The decision has come following weeks of escalating outreach, according to Sen. Mike Martucci. Early attempts by him and by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther had met with little success, requiring a more public discussion of the issue.

The first step of that public discussion involved Gunther bringing the issue up at a February 8 legislative hearing on the health-related aspects of the governor’s executive budget. Gunther addressed her concerns to the newly-installed commissioner of the DoH, Dr. Mary Bassett, who had begun her tenure at the department about two months ago.

“I have pleaded with one person after the other after the other… they say there’s no alternative—I feel that there’s got to be an alternative,” Gunther said. She had heard it through the grapevine, she added, that the reason for the move was a Cuomo-era deal involving eminent domain; it had not been under Dr. Bassett’s watch, she said, but the county needed her help and Gov. Kathy Hochul’s help.

The building in Middletown that the DoH was considering as a new home for the district office, 90 Crystal Run Rd., was subject to eminent domain in 2011, when New York State took an 0.8 acre portion of the property during the widening of Crystal Run Road. The property’s  owner at the time sued for damages; the property’s owner in 2017 was awarded $232,000 in direct and other damages that year, and then lost an appeal in 2020. (For the River Reporter’s coverage of this dispute, see https://bit.ly/RR-district-office.)

Bassett said that she was familiar with the situation; while she stressed that there would be no reduction in service from the move, she said she had been told it was a fact there wasn’t office space available in Monticello suitable for the DoH district office.

“Now we know that’s not true,” Gunther said.

“I also found it surprising,” said Bassett. “But I’m assured that every effort was made to locate [space in Monticello].”

Without receiving a clear answer at that hearing, Gunther and Martucci held a press conference two weeks later, on February 22. This conference brought a further escalation in their public outreach, addressing Gov. Hochul directly.

“This is something the governor can fix very easily,” said Martucci. “She can fix it by issuing a simple directive that the Department of Health needs to stay here where it belongs.”

The case for why the DoH district office needed to stay in Sullivan County was made clear. Every summer, the population of Sullivan County tripled, said Gunther; it was DoH inspectors who ensured that the camps and hotels where those newcomers stayed followed all the appropriate health and safety regulations.

If those inspectors had to come from Middletown instead of Monticello, their travel time would more than double. “There are only so many hours in the day, and if employees are stuck spending more time behind the wheel of a car, that means they are spending less time ensuring that regulations are being followed,” said Gunther.

The impact of the office’s move would go beyond the practical.

“We cannot have a county that’s second to last in health care rankings—61 out of 62, literally—losing a Department of Health field office,” said Gunther. “What kind of message does that send to everyone working to make this community healthier and a safer community?

Gunther and Martucci encouraged residents of Sullivan County to bring Hochul the message that the DoH office needed to stay in Monticello.

Gunther was hopeful that the governor would hear the message of the press conference. But it was the DoH, not the governor’s office, that called Gunther that night, letting her know that the move had been stayed.

The stay of the move, while temporary, presages a reevaluation of its necessity in the coming weeks, says Martucci. He anticipates that reevaluation to include conversations with him and with Gunther, and is hopeful that the DoH will look for space in Sullivan County.

If it does not, or if it looks to reduce its footprint in the county, outreach from the county’s representatives and its concerned citizens will very likely continue.

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