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Preview: New Hanover to swear in new commissioners, consider $25.5 million Healing Place project

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Vince Winkel
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New Hanover County's Board of Commissioners will hold its last meeting of 2020 on Monday.

On Monday afternoon, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners will hold its final meeting of the year. Year-end meetings, especially even-year meetings that see the swearing in of new board members, don’t often see packed agendas. There is one notable item on the table, $25.5 million in contracts to move forward with the Healing Place treatment center.

Note: Late Friday, the Commissioners' agenda was updated to include a discussion of reopening New Hanover County elementary schools; according to the agenda the commission is "interested" in seeing all elementary (pre-k through 5th grade) schools open for full-time, in-person instruction effective by the beginning of the second semester, starting January 11, 2021.

Monday’s meeting will see the swearing in of two Republican newcomers, Deb Hays, former member and chair of the Wilmington Planning Commission, and Bill Rivenbark, who resigned his seat on the Board of Education halfway through his first term after winning a seat on the Board of Commissioners. Democrat Jonathan Barfield, Jr., the longest-serving board member, begins his fourth term.

Before getting down to business, the board will also see appreciation gifts bestowed on outgoing Republican commissioners Woody White and Pat Kusek.

Democrat Julia Olson-Boseman seems likely to keep the gavel as chair, but it’s less clear who will take the vice-chair spot. The wrangling for board positions will set the tone for working relationships moving forward.

The newly sworn-in board will then vote on whether to approve over $25 million in contracts for the Healing Place treatment center. The project has faced several significant delays, as well as an expanded scope and cost, over the last several years. Initially planned as a men’s-only facility budgeted around $11 million, the plan was later expanded to include room for up to 100 men and 100 women.

Conversations about a treatment center funded by the county and managed by Trillium, which oversees mental health funding for 26 coastal North Carolina counties, has been ongoing for years. In 2016, conversation was accelerated by the Castlight Health study, which gave Wilmington the grim title of number one in opioid abuse.

After the process began in earnest, the project hit ran into several issues.

Because the Healing Place was planned for a location in City of Wilmington limits, near the hospital, it required a Special-Use Permit from the city. Repeated delays, in part due to concerns from neighboring medical businesses, threatened to stall or kill the project. A lawsuit was later filed by at least two of these businesses, but was later dropped.

More recently, Commissioners were surprised when Trillium informed the county that it had opted to go with Kentucky-based Healing Place instead of local non-profit Coastal Horizons. Commissioner Barfield strongly objected, saying he felt Coastal Horizons had been “pimped or prostituted” in order to help smooth the process with Wilmington, and called the decision a “bait and switch.” According to commissioners, part of the choice stemmed from a philosophical difference over medically-assisted treatment (such as methadone or Suboxone), which the Healing Place will not offer, while Coastal Horizons does.

Nevertheless, the project has carried forward. If approved on Monday, construction will start in early February 2021, with an estimated completion date in April 2020.

The Board of Commissioners meeting will be held Monday, December 3, in the New Hanover County Courthouse at 24 North Third Street in Room 301. Space is limited due to Covid-19 precautions, but the meeting can also be viewed live at NHCTV.