A handful of homeowners who live near the Purchase Youth Village in Benton attended the Benton City Council meeting seeking relief in their concerns about the establishment of a group home for troubled children and teens. What they learned is that even the city's zoning laws are not sufficient in restricting the establishment because its residents are protected by the Fair Housing Act.
Kathy Johnston, who lives with her husband in a home neighboring the Purchase Youth Village (PYV) facility off Symsonia Hwy. just outside Benton's city limits, said she and other neighboring families learned a home near theirs had sold to the PYV, which would be used as a group home. Their main concern, she said, is the safety of their families.
The PYV is a 24-bed psychiatric residential treatment facility which offers psychiatric, behavioral and substance abuse treatment services to children ages 8-17, both male and female. Johnston said the current facility, which has large walls and is supposed to be secured, is not able to keep its patients from escaping on a regular basis and because a large number of police show up when a child escapes, it was the belief of the neighbors the children were prone to violence.
Johnston said it's an unsettling idea that children who might be prone to violence are escaping the facility that's fenced in, causing police searches at the neighboring homes and properties--but it's even more unsettling that there would be children in a typical household without fences.
"We don't know they're going to hurt anybody but we don't know they aren't, either," she told the council members.
City Attorney Rob Mattingly and Benton Mayor Rita Dotson reported speaking with the director of the PYV facility and were able to provide some insight that was comforting to the concerned neighbors.
Dotson said there would only be eight youth at a time in the home and they would have a social worker directly overseeing them. She said the children in that home would be those who were not being properly cared for and needed a safe place to stay while they received care, with the end goal of being transitioned back into their homes with their families or into a stable foster care environment with living skills. She also noted none of the residents of that facility would have violent backgrounds.
Dotson also told the group of concerned citizens that even though that home was located in the R1, single-family dwelling zone, the city would violate the Fair Housing Act, federal law, if they tried to block the group home in any way.
Mattingly said, "From my research, I'm clear it would be a violation if we restricted this home from being there. If we violate, we're subject to a whole team of federal attorneys coming down on us. It has happened in Lexington and they were fined big time. As your attorney, I'm telling you I think enforcing zoning would be a violation of the Fair Housing Act and we would be subject to fines."
He also spoke to the need for those types of facilities in western Kentucky, coming from the perspective of a retired family court judge.
"Typically those children go to Lexington or Louisville and if you have families who are local [from western Kentucky] and they're poor, it's hard for them to travel to bond with their children," he explained. "I know it doesn't help you but they have a lot of poor people unable to visit with their children."
Dotson said if the issues persist with law enforcement regularly coming to their homes and properties to search for escaped children, the city will do what it can to help protect them. She also encouraged them to reach out to the director of the facility to ask for a tour and express their concerns directly.
In other business:
• The council members approved the gas department contracting out locating services, which Benton Gas System Manager Todd Riley will save the department thousands of dollars a year. In fact, he said, the annual $60,000 contract fee is equivalent to what the gas department pays annually to do locating services itself--not including covering fines for mis-locates and gas losses when lines are broken as a result of mis-locates. And the contract only requires a 30-day written notice if the department wants to return to locating for itself. The council unanimously approved the measure.
• The council approved authorizing Dotson to sign a quitclaim deed for the West Marshall water tower located in the middle of a cow pasture owned by Wyatt Brothers, LLC.
• The council asked Dotson to gather more information regarding turning ball field six into a dog park. She said several residents have requested a dog park and she believes that's a positive solution, but wanted to make sure the council bought into the idea before she conducted exhaustive research. The council's only concern was potential liability, but asked her to look into the details. She's expected to detail her findings at the next council meeting.
• Dotson said the city celebrates its 175th anniversary this month and asked if the council would be interested in holding a special celebration when the weather warms up. They briefly considered having a special observation as part of the Tater Day festivities and should discuss further details during the next council meeting.