City of Springfield takes actions to stop Bethel Village facility


The Springfield City Commission on Monday night unanimously denied a development order for the expansion of the Panama City Rescue Mission’s Bethel Village program for women — again.

This time, however, commissioners believe their decision will stand up in court.

And, there’s a good chance it will be tested again. After the public hearing, the Rev. Billy Fox, executive director of the Rescue Mission, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision. He won’t know until after a board of directors meeting today, but it’s likely the decision will be appealed again, he said.

The Rescue Mission filed for a development order to expand its existing facility on Transmitter Road. It currently includes one residential unit that can house up to 21 participants in the Mission’s women’s recovery program and one live-in supervisor.

The development order called for one large residential structure that could accommodate 28 people and four cottages that could house eight to 10 people. With the expansion in accommodations, the site also would provide additional services.

The downtown Panama City location would be changed to an all-male facility, and females and their children up to age 12 would receive services in Springfield.

This is the second time the Springfield City Commission has denied the development order after a public hearing. In 2010, the city denied the development order, and the Rescue Mission appealed the decision. In February 2011, Circuit Court Judge Michael Overstreet remanded the application back to the city for another public hearing or the issuance of the development order because, he wrote, the commission “failed to provide any factual basis for their decision.”

Commissioners believe they have it this time.

Among the differences this time around was testimony from Police Chief Phillip Thorne, who said he believes there will be an increased strain on police officers and firefighters if the facility expands. He said the increase in residents and a change in why they are at the facility likely would result in increased calls for service from the police and fire departments. The city’s fire department responds to all emergency medical calls.

Thorne said Overstreet’s ruling “talked about citizen conjecture or speculation about future events not being substantive or credible. Respectfully, I submit to you that as a law enforcement professional, I am not merely speculating on potential problems; I am using deductive reasoning and reaching logical conclusions through a standard practice of law enforcement taking events, trends, problems, etc. at one location and (utilizing) that information for operational, budgeting and personnel planning. It is standard practice for us to have to plan that if an entity that is problematic in one location chooses to expand to another location, that the same problems will likely occur. It is not mere speculation, but it is data that creates the basis for crime analysis.”

He presented information about the number of calls for service at the Bethel Village since it opened in 2004 — 22 calls for service, most of them medical related. In addition, he said there were 30 calls in the surrounding neighborhood for issues like drug use, auto burglaries and fires, though those calls are not necessarily linked to Bethel Village.

By comparison, he said there were more than 7,500 calls in a year to the Panama City Rescue Mission and the surrounding area. If the Springfield location saw an increase of 5 percent of that amount, Thorne said it would result in 375 additional calls for service in the city and a need for additional police staff.

Fox said during the public hearing the police chief’s testimony was “not completely factual, based on speculation,” though he didn’t specifically address any issues with what Thorne said.

Commissioners also heard from Zana Ireland, who owns a business next door to Bethel Village.
She was one of about six residents who spoke during the public hearing. She gave a presentation that covered a wide range of information, including a comparison of the Springfield and Panama City locations. The expansion would mean they could both accommodate roughly the same number of people, she said.

City attorney Kevin Obos said he feels like the city has a more solid foundation to base its decision this time around because of testimony from Thorne and Ireland.

“Tonight was more about looking at some statistics and data … not just saying I don’t want it next door,” he said.

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