About 500 rally at courthouse to support residents, keep facility open
Living up to their bright red "Polk Center Strong" T-shirts, a throng of more than 500 area residents rallied Monday morning in Franklin to protest the proposed closing of Polk State Center.
The gathering in front of the Venango County Courthouse, an event coordinated by the AFSCME labor union, area legislators and the Franklin and Venango Area Chambers of Commerce, was focused on opposing the pending shutdown of the center.
The closing was unexpectedly and suddenly announced Aug. 14 by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Also in the closure mix is White Haven State Center in Luzerne County.
Both centers would be closed over the next three years, according to the state, in effort to relocate center residents from an institutional setting and into community-based living. Financial considerations, too, were tapped as a reason for the closings.
Polk Center, founded in 1897, is home to 194 residents. The center includes eight buildings on 2,000 acres. There are 744 employees at Polk Center.
Rally participants included many Polk Center employees as well as family members of numerous residents of the facility. They gathered for what would be a very vocal and energetic hourlong event, and a table alongside the courthouse had a long line of supporters.
"We're running out of 'Save Polk Center' yard signs and we're getting a lot of people to sign state Rep. (R. Lee) James' petition to keep Polk open," said Melvin Coe, a 10-year employee at the center. He and his wife, Amy, were encouraging people to sign the petition.
"The community is behind this. I mean, I had some of the residents ask me, 'What did we do wrong to have them kick us out?' and that is motivating me."
Later in the morning, James, an Oil City resident, said about 2,400 individuals had signed his online petition as of Friday.
"I'm sure we have had about 500 more since then and we have the people signing it here today," said James."I'm leaving it up as long as I think it's effective. And then it's going to Gov. (Tom) Wolf and Human Services Secretary Theresa Miller."
Albert Abramovic, a Venango County commissioner, served as emcee.
"Today we stand as one for those families and their loved ones at Polk," said Abramovic, interrupted by loud cheers of "united we stand" from the crowd. "We stand for those who aren't heard and aren't listened to."
Later, Abramovic told the gathering that the anti-closure movement must be "a bipartisan and unified effort" and that the Labor Day rally was "round one."
'A short-sighted decision'
State Sen. Scott Hutchinson, of Oil City, has said in other public settings that keeping Polk Center was his "top, top priority." As the rally's leadoff speaker, he outlined the definition of home as "a place of residence, ... of family living together."
"Polk Center is the home of 200 fragile, vulnerable individuals (and) ... they deserve safe, secure, familiar surroundings," said Hutchinson. "Polk Center is an integrated home setting. A core function of government is to provide a safety net, and we can't let that net be cut away for people (who are there) through no fault of their own."
Critical of what he termed was "a short-sighted decision" to close the center, Hutchinson told the gathering the decision is "driven by a utopian viewpoint that doesn't match the real world."
Warning the resettling of Polk Center residents into community living arrangements could have consequences ranging from "homelessness to the the criminal justice system," Hutchinson also noted he believed "phony cost estimates" were plugged into reports about the expenses to care for Polk Center residents as well as facility upkeep costs.
"There is one person who can stop this madness," said Hutchinson, a Republican. "Gov. Wolf (a Democrat) can stop this right now. That is not a political statement. It is a fact. ... Everything worthwhile is difficult. I am with you all the way."
Jodi Lewis, director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce, said she was "speechless" when she learned of the plan to close Polk Center, and her immediate thought was of the loss of more than 700 jobs in the community.
"That was first. But then the loss of jobs became the loss of (residents') home," said Lewis. "The priority is keeping the residents safe and in the home they know."
'We are their family'
Jim Miller, the popular owner of the Main Street Market in Polk, drew a huge ovation as he took the podium. He said Polk Center residents are frequent visitors to his store.
"These people need you. You are their family. We are their family," said Miller. "The community and Polk Center have always been intertwined."
"Will Polk Borough survive? Yes. Will my business survive? I hope so. Will the county survive? Yes. But about 200 people (at Polk Center) won't survive without you."
'Stop wringing our hands'
James said the announcement that Polk Center would close amounted to "our community being assaulted."
"They have a right to choose ... where they will live," said James. "They say a community group home is better ... but the studies show an increase in mortality. ... And community group homes are just not ready to take on these responsibilities."
In exhorting the crowd to "stop wringing our hands" and instead continue to actively fight the closure, James also suggested alternatives for the sprawling Polk Center complex and the need to "re-examine the mission."
"First, let's take care of the folks who live there," said James. "Let's design a new look."
James suggested Polk Center could be revitalized with additional services, such as those for senior inmates or homeless individuals, or as a treatment facility for homeless veterans. The key issue, he emphasized, would be allowing those residents now at Polk Center to continue living there.
"This was done by ambush," said Ray Feroz, Ph.D., chairman of the county's mental health board and a Clarion University professor. "There was no consultation with trustees, legislators, residents and their families. It was a nevermind attitude by the state."
Noting the training and experience of Polk Center employees is "unmatched," Feroz said the rationale of "it's for the betterment of residents is a false argument."
"It was done without our counsel or our consent," said Feroz. "...Together, we can make this happen."
'We need to stop this'
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Centre County resident whose district includes Venango County, told the crowd, "I can't think of a better place to be on Labor Day than working for people who are vulnerable."
Insisting "we need to stop this," Thompson said, "For the bean counters, if we are under-capacity (at Polk Center), then let's look at it. There are tremendous needs out there that are not being met. ... Unfortunately, we are dealing with bureaucrats and elitists."
Thompson pointed out numerous signs in the crowd that carried initials. The letters denoted the names of the Polk Center residents and the signs were carried by center employees who cared for the individuals.
'It can't stop today'
David Henderson, an AFSCME director whose labor union represents 646 of the 744 Polk Center employees, said while the potential loss of jobs is an overwhelming concern, the top priority is "the folks who live there."
"They will be ripped from their homes. They got eviction notices and they have no choice," said Henderson. "Folks that don't have a voice - that is our obligation."
Henderson encouraged the public to continue its opposition to the pending shutdown.
"You have an opportunity. It can't stop today. Make the calls. Send the letters. Hold our elected officials accountable," he said.