Addicts, cops, others, share local stories of heroin epidemic

James Madison became addicted to prescription painkillers when he was in high school.

He still went to school, held down a job, acted like a normal teenager. But after a while, the pills didn’t get him high.

“Eventually they don’t work anymore,” he said.

Madison, 22, who went to Minisink schools, followed the path of many users today — starting off on pills, then moving on to heroin.

Stephanie Dickman, 24, who went to Pine Bush, had been surrounded by drugs all her life — she helped her mother sell heroin as a teenager. When she was 14, her first boyfriend was a 20-year-old heroin addict.

“He’d wake up in the morning and … (defecate) and throw up on himself,” she said.

But Dickman didn’t try heroin herself until she was 21. Her mother, herself an addict, and the father of her children, showed her how to shoot up for the first times.

Both of them said they went to school with people who have overdosed and died.

“The sick thing is if I heard one of my friends died I’d want to get (that heroin), to be that high,” Dickman said.

Middletown Cares, a local group that works to keep kids away from drugs and alcohol, organized the forum “Heroin Trends in the Hudson Valley,” with the help of several members of the Middletown Police Department. Several dozen people came to the First Baptist Church on Mulberry Street Thursday night, to hear from people who have firsthand knowledge of the drug many in law enforcement say has reached epidemic levels of use locally.

A gang member from a neighboring state, hidden behind a curtain to shield his identity, said he would come to Orange County to make more money — a bag of heroin that goes for $5 in his hometown goes for $10 or $15 here.

“It’s an opportunity to get rich,” he said.

He said reaching out to younger children, and showing your kids you love them, might reduce his future customer base — he said his childhood feelings of neglect are part of why he turned to the gang life. But he was clear that it’ll be an uphill battle — there are a lot of drug users here, and a lot of dealers, too.

“You take me out, it’s a million more,” he said.

Despite selling heroin, he said he has never done it himself.

“The drug we call heroin, it’s a messed-up drug,” he said. “It’ll have people doing anything.”

Madison stole from his friends to get high; Dickman turned to prostitution. They both stopped using after getting arrested. He’s been clean since July; she will be six months sober in May. They’re in drug court now, and have the threat of jail hanging over their heads to help stay sober at the moment. They’re doing outpatient therapy, and trying to put their lives back together.

“I might not be where I want to be, but thank God I’m not where I used to be,” Dickman said.

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Public forum on heroin to be held in Middletown next week

The Middletown Cares Coalition is holding a public forum on the area’s growing heroin problem on Thursday.

A month after that, the state Senate majority’s Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opium Addiction will also be in the area, as part of their statewide tour to solicit input on rising heroin and painkiller abuse and come up with ideas to address it.

Peg Kimble, the head of Middletown Cares, said their forum is being called “Heroin Trends in the Hudson Valley.” The exact format still needs to be settled on, but a couple members of the Middletown Police Department are expected to be taking part and discussing the drug, use of which has been rising throughout the region in recent years.

The public is invited, and light refreshments will be served. Middletown Cares is a community group that is active in efforts to keep young people away from alcohol and drugs.

The Senate task force will be holding public sessions in Monticello on May 9 and in Newburgh on May 15.

The task force consists of 19 Republicans — including local senators John Bonacic and Bill Larkin — and two members of the Independent Democratic Conference that make up the Senate majority with the Republicans. They plan to examine the rise in heroin and opiate use and develop recommendations for treating and preventing addiction. The public is invited to attend and participate.

Forum locations:
MIDDLETOWN CARES FORUM:
Thursday, April 10, 6 p.m., First Baptist Church, 11 Mulberry St., Middletown

SENATE TASK FORCE MEETINGS:
-May 9, 2 to 4 p.m., Legislative Hearing Room, second floor, Sullivan County Government Center, 100 North St., Monticello
-May 15, 10 a.m. to noon, Newburgh Armory Unity Center, 321 South William St., Newburgh

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Wallkill supervisor to push law protecting Shawangunk Kill

Stricter environmental protections may soon be coming to the section of the Shawangunk Kill in the Town of Wallkill.

Town Supervisor Dan Depew said that he plans to meet privately Thursday with people who own property along the creek, to gather their input in developing a town law to protect the shoreline.

Depew’s goal is to preserve the creek by limiting tree-cutting and other activities, such as, possibly, building new septic systems or sheds or storing junk vehicles or machinery, within a certain distance of its banks — maybe 100 or 150 feet, or the flood plain, Depew suggested in a phone interview Tuesday. Existing buildings, agricultural uses and septic systems within the protected zone should be grandfathered in, he said.

Keeping the trees and vegetation along the shoreline, he said, will both prevent erosion and make sure it stays shaded and cool, which it needs to be to remain a good habitat for trout.

The kill runs from Greenville to Gardiner, where it meets the Wallkill River. It forms much of the border between Wallkill and the Town of Mamakating. Depew said he mailed notice of the meeting to all 100 or so people who own property bordering the creek in the town.

None of the towns along the kill have any particular regulations protecting it now, Depew said. There are some areas that fall under state and federal wetlands protections, a section in Wallkill is Orange County Land Trust property, and another section in Gardiner is protected because the land is owned by the Wallkill Valley Land Trust.

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Middletown wins lawsuit on King Street building

Middletown just won a lawsuit challenging its tax seizure of 11-15 King St.

The building, at the corner of King Street and what used to be Center Street, used to house the Middletown Press and, more recently, Restorative Management. It has been tied up in court since 2011, when the city tried to take it for back taxes; the city won in state Supreme Court, and a week or two ago they won on appeal too.

This is one of a number of large, empty or severely underused and mostly city-owned buildings in that neighborhood — there are three abandoned department stores on the block of North Street between King and Orchard; the old Thrall Library and the former TD Bank building are nearby, too.

Unlike some of the old department stores, 11-15 King St. is in decent shape; Mayor Joe DeStefano said there has been a good deal of interest in that building and in the former TD Bank.  In fact, he said, they are negotiating with some interested buyers for the TD Bank building; the city has stopped showing it, and DeStefano hopes to be able to announce something soon. As for the old department stores, the city is weighing taking the old Woolworth and razing it to build a parking lot, and the former Tompkins building, which has been in city hands for years, has been a challenge to sell due to its poor condition.

Pattern for Progress is helping the city look at ways to revitalize that area, including soliciting ideas for projects. The vision, as Pattern CEO Jonathan Drapkin outlined in a letter to the city, is to find a way to attract younger professionals to live in the area. DeStefano said they hope to transform it into a more walkable and livable area.

“We’re into this new urbanism idea,” he said.

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Middletown voting on shared services study Tuesday night

UPDATE: Middletown’s Common Council voted on the shared services study with Pattern for Progress at the last meeting; they’re revoting tonight because the Board of Estimate needed to vote on the study first, which didn’t happen.

Mayor Joe DeStefano said he was a little surprised when he got to City Hall this morning and saw a Town of Wallkill parking sign on his usual spot, in addition to the flag out front.

DeStefano said he offered Wallkill Supervisor Dan Depew the chance to be the first mayor of the merged Middletown and Wallkill. DeStefano said they would be a “strong community” and could serve as a good example to the region of concentrated development in the city and along 211 in the town, combined with protection and preservation of the rural character of the outlying areas of the town.

“Crazier things have been said in jest,” DeStefano said. “Who knows? At least people are talking.”

More seriously, he said the Pattern study will look at sharing services with the towns of Wallkill, Wawayanda and Mount Hope, possibly the Middletown school district, and Orange County. County Executive Steve Neuhaus floated this idea in his State of the County speech, specifically saying he wants to look at sharing assessment and emergency dispatch services.

——

This afternoon, Town of Wallkill Supervisor Dan Depew is planning to do a press conference announcing a plan to create an “overlay protection zone” for the Shawangunk Kill, which flows from Greenville to where it meets the Wallkill River near Gardiner, and forms much of Wallkill’s border with the Town of Mamakating. This has been an issue Depew has been talking about for a while; he’s timing the announcement to coincide with the first day of trout season.

Middletown’s Common Council is meeting tonight. They’re going to be voting to sue Polonia Towers, which hasn’t been paying back its federal loan. They’re voting to award the bid for the Watts Memorial Park baseball field work to Ketcham Fencing, for $74,101. They’re also voting on a few city code changes, including a measure to require fire extinguishers in rental units, and another spelling out, in more detail, the regulations on giving notice of code violations. (I’m not exactly sure what impact these changes will have; I’ll make some calls in a bit and update this when I know.)

They’re making a long list of appointments to the city’s Board of Ethics, Industrial Development Agency, Board of Assessment Review, Board of Electrical Engineerings, Housing Authority, Architectural Review Board and Police Commission; one that caught my eye is J. Miguel Rodrigues, who is also Common Council president, will be appointed to the Police Commission to replace David Green, who is resigning.

And, they’re voting to pay Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress $25,000 to do a study looking at possibilities for shared services with the Town of Wallkill and other area municipalities. Pattern will also look at ideas to redevelop the block of North Street between Main and Orchard, one of the most blighted areas of downtown and one that’s been a city focus of late — see the plans to build a parking lot where the old Woolworth’s building is and to turn King Street into a pedestrian walkway. (The aforementioned Polonia Towers was an attempt to develop that area; the restaurants that were supposed to go in there never panned out, though.) In the letter attached to the meeting agenda, Pattern CEO Jonathan Drapkin mentions that they had discussed attracting younger people — “Millenials and other ‘Urban Pioneers’” — to this area of downtown, and developing a “big idea” to redevelop the area that could get state funding.

Middletown Mayor Joe DeStefano referenced the Pattern study in a statement lauding the state budget deal he put out over the weekend. The study was spurred by a provision that, DeStefano hopes, Middletown can take part in — in jurisdictions that stay within the tax cap in year 1, and make progress toward shared services in year 2, taxpayers will get rebates from the state to make up the difference of any property tax increases.

Middletown and the Town of Wallkill have both stayed within the tax cap over the past couple years; DeStefano in particular, has been a pretty vocal supporter of the cap and of Cuomo’s policies in general.

“With 10,500 different taxing jurisdictions in New York State, it’s no wonder that we have the highest property taxes in the country,” DeStefano said. “The Governor has incentivized local governments to cap spending, consider possible consolidation and share services. This results in lower property taxes and makes the State and our community more competitive for economic development and will hopefully end the exodus of business and people from New York that we have seen over the past couple of decades.”

Check the city website for more details. The agenda, which includes supporting documents for these items and other such details, can be downloaded from the calendar entry announcing the meeting.

Lastly, I got to work this morning and found, in my inbox, a press release from Depew announcing that, in response to Cuomo’s shared services initiative, “The Town of Wallkill has reached an agreement with the City of Middletown for the City to dissolve over a period of five years and rejoin its mother municipality, the Town of Wallkill, reconstituting the original borders of 1888. As a first sign of solidarity, the Town of Wallkill has masted its flag over the Middletown City Hall.

I took a quick walk up the street and, sure enough, the Town of Wallkill flag was flying on the city’s flag pole.

Happy April Fools Day!

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Truman Moon principal, PTO head urge community to lobby for school funding

Thursday evening, Truman Moon’s principal and PTO head urged people to raise their voices — and fast — to lobby for more state aid to keep their school open.

Before a crowd of several dozen teachers and parents in the elementary school’s cafeteria, Principal Linda Bradt went over the Middletown School District’s 2014-2015 budget prospects. She, and PTO President Samantha Figueroa, told people to talk to their neighbors, contact legislators and sign petitions calling for more funding.

“Our children’s voices need to be heard, and we need to reach out to as many people as possible before the decisions are made,” Bradt said.

With over 60 layoffs looming in the budget proposals Superintendent Ken Eastwood put before the school board last week, district officials are considering closing Truman Moon, the smallest of Middletown’s four elementary schools, to possibly save some of these jobs.

Bradt stressed that no one has decided to close the school yet, but there isn’t much time before the decisions are made — the state budget, which will let districts know how much aid they’re getting, is due to be passed Tuesday, and the school board is expected to adopt a budget proposal on Thursday. The public will vote on it on May 20.

“Once it’s done, it’s done, but we have the opportunity to reach out and change,” said Bradt. “We can create a new ending.”

The school’s hallway wall was covered with pictures students drew, criticizing state lawmakers and proclaiming their love for the school, and Bradt spoke in front of a backdrop of more of these pictures, along with a “We Love Truman Moon” banner one of the kindergarten classes made, covered in red paper hearts.

School Board Vice President Andrew Warren also urged people to lobby. And, he continued to criticize Sen. John Bonacic, R-C-Mount Hope, whom Eastwood and school board members have been blasting since Bonacic voted for the Senate Republican budget proposal; they say the funding it gives to pre-kindergarten in New York City and tax credits for charter school donors should go to public school aid instead. Warren said he has already mailed Bonacic 50 postcards of pictures of a school funding rally outside his Middletown office on Tuesday.

“We really want him to know we’re holding him accountable for this funding inequity that’s been placed on us,” Warren said.

Bonacic countered this week that he is advocating for more school aid, and was the only Republican to back a “millionaire’s tax” to raise school funding in 2011.

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Wallkill looking for storm committee members

The Town of Wallkill is looking for 8 to 10 residents to serve on a committee to help decide how to spend the $3 million in federal storm mitigation money the town is getting.

Town Supervisor Dan Depew said they are looking for people who aren’t elected officials, who live in the town and were affected by storms Irene, Lee or Sandy. It will entail 8 to to 10 meetings over the next six or seven months; committee members will need to review studies the town has already done and give input on what the town should do now.

People who are interested can email supervisor@townofwallkill.com. The governor’s office will approve the appointments.

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Meeting on future of Truman Moon elementary tonight

There will be a meeting at Truman Moon Elementary School Thursday evening, to discuss the Middletown school district’s budget situation and the looming potential closure of Truman Moon school.

The district is contemplating over 60 layoffs, mostly teachers, in the 2014-2015 budget to close a budget gap of more than $5 million. At last week’s school board meeting, a couple board members suggested looking at closing the school to reduce the number of layoffs.

The Truman Moon PTO posted a status on its Facebook page encouraging people to bring their friends and neighbors, inviting people whose children don’t go to Truman Moon, and saying child care will be provided.

The meeting will be at 6 p.m. in the school cafeteria.

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Court allows ex-Middletown cop’s suit against former police brass to move forward

CORRECTION: Freeman was dropped as a defendant on March 14.

Also, I talked to Sokoloff again a couple hours ago; he pointed me to Jackler’s deposition and his 56.1 statement, both of which, he said, bolster his case. I have a meeting I need to get to in a bit but I’ll upload them here later tonight. In the meantime, they’re on Pacer, as is the defense answer to the 56.1 statement, and many, many other documents in this case.

—–

A lawsuit alleging that a Middletown police officer lost his job when he refused to lie about seeing a sergeant punch a handcuffed man in the face could go to trial in a couple months.

Federal Judge Cathy Seibel rejected a defense motion for summary judgment on March 13, ruling from the bench that there is enough evidence for a jury to rule on Jason Jackler’s allegations.

A settlement conference has been scheduled for May 1. But if the parties don’t reach a settlement by May 19, the case could go to trial any time after that.

Jackler is suing Matthew Byrne, Paul Rickard and Patrick Freeman, who were Middletown police chief and lieutenants at the time. All three retired in 2009.

The case goes back to the disorderly conduct arrest of Zachary Jones by then-Sgt. Greg Metakes for cursing outside the Mobil on the Run store at the corner of Monhagan Avenue and Route 211 on Jan. 5, 2006. Jones said that, while handcuffed in the back of Jackler’s patrol car, he called Metakes a “dick,” and Metakes then reopened the door and punched him in the face.

Metakes said he had opened the door, thinking Jones had cried out in pain, and then put his hand in Jones’ face because he thought he was going to spit on him. The department cleared Metakes, who is now a lieutenant, of an excessive force charge.

Jackler, who was a probationary officer at the time, says that he heard Jones call Metakes a “dick” and saw Metakes punch him. Byrne, Rickard and Freeman, Jackler said, pressured him to withdraw his report saying this and file a new one exonerating Metakes, but he wouldn’t. So, the suit says, Byrne and Rickard disparaged Jackler’s job performance to the city’s Police Commission, and the commission let him go on Jan. 19.

Jackler sued in 2009. Seibel originally dismissed it in February 2010, saying that a public servant’s speech in the performance of his duties is not protected by the First Amendment. In 2011, though, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision, saying that Jackler was protected because he was speaking on a matter of public concern and because a government employer can’t coerce you into breaking the law (which making a false statement would be), allowing the suit to keep moving forward.

Jackler’s victory on appeal attracted a bit of attention in the legal blogosphere at the time — since the 2006 case Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which the Supreme Court held that public employees have no First Amendment rights when acting in their capacity as employees, federal courts have generally sided with government employers over whistleblower employees. Byrne, Rickard and Freeman appealed, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, but they declined in February 2012.

“This case highlights the need to protect police officers who do the right thing and speak up when they witness police misconduct,” said Steve Bergstein, of the Chester firm Bergstein and Ullrich and who is representing Jackler along with James Monroe of Dupee and Monroe in Goshen. “Jackler was fired because he would not back off his truthful statement. Defendants tried to cover-up the police misconduct by pressuring Jackler to change his story, and he was fired for standing by the truth.”

Brian Sokoloff, one of the partners in the Long Island law firm Sokoloff and Stern that is representing Byrne, Rickard and Freeman, sounded confident they would prevail.

“We believe the case is highly defensible,” he said. “It’s my view that this lawsuit is an attempt to smear the reputations of very fine individuals. It’s sad that these men are being sued for exercising their best judgment.”

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Protesters in Middletown call for more school funding

Hundreds of people picketed in Middletown Tuesday afternoon, calling on state legislators to increase school funding.

Around 3 p.m., a couple dozen people were already gathered in front of the office complex behind the Taco Bell on Dolson Avenue that houses the Middletown office of Sen. John Bonacic, R, C-Mount Hope. A few busloads of students came and the crowd kept growing, until there were close to two hundred people by 3:45 p.m.

Most of the protestors were from Middletown — including teachers, students and school board members — although there were some from neighboring districts. Carrying signs that called on Bonacic and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase school funding, they chanted “These budget cuts have got to go! Hey hey! Ho ho!” A similarly large crowd — over 100 people — gathered across town, in front of City Hall, which houses a district office of Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D, WF-Forestburgh.

Middletown is facing a more than $5 million budget gap in 2014-2015, and the school board is considering dozens of teacher layoffs and maybe closing Truman Moon elementary. There have been layoffs in most of the budgets over the past few years.

District officials blame state mandates, and aid amounts far less than what was promised after the state changed the formula for aid distribution in 2007, for hurting Middletown and other similar small-city districts. (Click here for a report from Rutgers University education finance expert and professor Bruce Baker that says Middletown is the 10th-most underfunded district in the state.)

At last week’s Middletown school board meeting, members were especially critical of Bonacic, who voted for the state Senate budget proposal that contains both tax credits for charter school donors and over a half-billion for universal pre-kindergarten in New York City that, they argued, should’ve been spent on school aid statewide instead. They also accused Bonacic of never visiting the district or showing any interest in it, in contrast with Gunther, who they said they see and speak to more regularly.

A few of the protesters — including Middletown Superintendent Ken Eastwood — carried signs that  attacked Bonacic for supporting charter schools, or said “Let Bill Gates fund charter schools,” a reference to the millions of dollars the Microsoft business magnate has donated to charters.

Andrew Warren, the vice president of Middletown’s school board, said it doesn’t make sense to spend money on UPK when Middletown might have to get rid of full-day kindergarten in 2014-2015.

“We really need to fund the programs that already exist,” he said.

Sheila Esposito, president of the Middletown Teachers Association, said Bonacic called her on Monday — the first time he had done so in the 11 years she has headed the MTA, she said. Esposito said there were points in the conversation where they connected, although he mostly said that the district needs to make do with the funding it’s getting — a viewpoint she disagrees with.

“We have had enough,” she told him.

Esposito said she thinks upstate school issues may have been overshadowed by New York City’s money and influence, and the high-profile fight between Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio over UPK and charter schools.

Bonacic’s office said Monday that he is fighting for increased education aid. They didn’t immediately respond to another request for comment after Tuesday’s picket.

UPDATE: Bonacic spokesman MJ Goff just got back to me, with a statement going after Eastwood, and putting the blame on Eastwood, not the senator, for the lack of communication between Bonacic and the district over the years:

“On Monday morning in Albany there was a meeting, at the Superintendent’s request, between: Middletown School District Superintendent Ken Eastwood; Middletown School Board Member Paula E. Blumenau; Senator Flanagan who is the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee; and Senator Bonacic, where they discussed the financial position of the Middletown City School District.  Senator Bonacic thought it was a good discussion as they were looking for ways to help the Middletown City School District.  This was the first time in 10 years that Superintendent Eastwood has requested to meet with Senator Bonacic.

“At the present time Senator Bonacic is working with his colleagues on the State Budget in Albany and is fighting for increased education funding for all three dozen school districts he represents all or part of.  He was the only Republican State Senator to call for the extension of the ‘millionaires tax’ back in 2011 in order to provide increased state aid for education, and the Times Herald Record noted this on 3/11/11.  However, this Superintendent seems to have an insatiable appetite to spend taxpayer money.  No matter how much state funding Middletown City School District receives, it will never satisfy this Superintendent.”

UPDATE (2):  There was a similar, albeit smaller protest this afternoon by some Valley Central supporters in front of Sen. Bill Larkin’s office. There are some photos on Twitter here, posted by Joseph Byrne, who ran for trustee in Maybrook this year:

https://twitter.com/Byrnez072

UPDATE (3): Statement from Gunther:

“I have been advocating tirelessly for additional funding for all the districts I represent.  The Middletown School District has made extraordinary strides in recent years.  They have an outstanding graduation rate, received Race to the Top funding from the federal government, and provide our children with a top-notch education.  We need to preserve that, and I have been fighting tooth and nail.  Today’s rally was a great opportunity for students, teachers, parents, advocates and the administration to join me in fighting for the most important cause there is – our children.”
UPDATE (4) (And this is really it, I’m getting hungry.): Eastwood replied that a politician (like Bonacic) should get out to see his constituency, and that several of the most underfunded districts in the state are in Bonacic’s district – it’s not just Middletown. (Referring back to the Rutgers report I linked to earlier, I also see Ellenville, Fallsburg, Liberty, and Port Jervis.)
“I would measure Sen. Bonacic’s effectiveness in education relative to his ability to assure that all schools in his senatorial district are receiving their fair share of education,” Eastwood wrote. “If he wants to continue sending billions of dollars to New York City, that is his decision and should not be surprised when more constituents become angry that their children are suffering educationally.”
Below is a photo I took of the crowd in front of Middletown City Hall. Check recordonline.com and tomorrow’s paper for more photos of the protest on Dolson Avenue, by photographer Allyse Pulliam.

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