Last-Minute Grant Could Save Polk Center Jobs

| November 22, 2022

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT)A Monday news release from the office of State Representative R. Lee James (Venango/Butler) announcing a $2MM grant may be the harbinger of much-needed good economic news for the area.

Verland Community Living Arrangements, a non-profit agency headquartered in Sewickley that cares for more than 200 Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities, was awarded a $2MM grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP).

If Verland accepts the grant, it will use the state funds to help construct new homes for residents being displaced by the closure of Polk State Center and provide jobs for those that will be lost, according to President and CEO of Verland, Bill Harriger.

Harriger says he’s been looking for a solution for residents and staff of the center since its closure was announced.

“I met with Representative (R. Lee) James and Senator (Scott E.) Hutchinson a little more than a year ago to get some support for the grant that we were going to put in,” Harriger explained. “I had previously spoken with the Office of Developmental Programs, which basically runs our industry as well as the state centers. It seems like the only good viable solution is to build new homes where the workforce is.”

Harriger’s plan is to construct four homes within a 15-to-20-mile radius of Polk Center. Each home would house six to eight of Polk Center’s residents in a family-style, one-story house. By doing so, he hopes to continue to employ the staff currently working at Polk State Center and care for as many of its residents as possible.

So far, no real opposition to the plan is apparent, though there are several hurdles.

First and foremost, Harriger estimates that the cost to build the homes and staff them will be closer to $4MM. The RCAP grant would cover half of the bill. The other half, Harriger says, may come from “philanthropic asks,” future funding through the state from room and board reimbursements, as well as mortgages on the properties.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that it can happen from a funding perspective,” Harriger said. “But, beyond funding, we need to know if the state is willing to license these homes as ICFs.”

The state licenses facilities such as those run by Verland as either ICFs (intermediate care facilities) or “group homes.” The rate at which the state reimburses the operator depends on the license of the home. ICFs get a higher reimbursement. According to Harriger, that level of reimbursement is likely enough to cover the costs to employ any Polk Center staff who may transition to employment with Verland.

If the state were to license the facilities as group homes, Verland would need to apply for an exception to get the higher rates.

Polk Center has been scheduled to close on November 30. But in a class action lawsuit opposing the closure, Judge Martin C. Carlson has said the date must be moved back another 60 to 90 days. Harriger believes the new close date is March 6th, and that is subject to change.

But, that doesn’t give Verland very much time to finish construction.

Building the homes, Harriger says, is likely to take more than a year from the time ground is broken. There are some ways to minimize construction time—using modular construction so walls and roof joists are being built at the same time as utilities are being run to the site and foundations are being poured, for example.

But, Harriger admits that he doesn’t have a perfect fix.

“A potential solution would be, maybe, Verland rents a portion of the Polk Center facility. That way the state can say they closed on March 6th,” he said. “We could keep these folks in the same spot. Then, once the homes become available, we’d be able to relocate them there.”

The worst-case scenario would be to move Polk Center residents to the remaining two open state centers in Ebensburg and Selinsgrove. Then, once the Verland homes are ready to be occupied, move them back to Venango County.

“To have those people move to one of the existing state centers and then come back—that to me is a disaster,” says Harriger. “Packing up your home and moving and relocating and then getting into a new home, I mean there’s all kinds of changes that all of us go through. That’s totally compounded by someone who could have lived at Polk maybe, 30, 40, 50, 60 years and gets taken over to Ebensburg for three months. And then, all of a sudden, they’re into this new house. The idea of moving two or three times again, to me, is just a disaster.”

If Verland is able to succeed in keeping residents in Polk Center during construction of their planned Venango County homes, the number of residents who’ll ultimately live in them is still much lower than the current need. Each home has a planned capacity of six to eight, meaning 24 to 32 of Polk’s 124 remaining residents would have a place. The remainder will likely need to be transferred to Ebensburg or Selinsgrove, anyway.

“It’s a partial solution to help staff, the residents, and their families stay close to each other,” Harriger says.

When asked what’s in it for Verland, Harriger replied that as a non-profit, its goal is to care for the population of Pennsylvanians with intellectual challenges. Eighty percent of their budget is spent on staff, he added. With a trained workforce already in place who know and serve their Polk Center residents, building homes in Venango County just makes sense.

Related article: James Announces $2 Million Grant to Assist Adults With Intellectual Disabilities

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