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Lake Shore Hospital Authority

LSHA-Meridian, Part III: Community Activist and Former Drug Dealer Opposes the Meridian Plan

Sylvester Warren wearing a shirt with the logo: people with mental health illness matter
Sylvester Warren appearing before the City Council earlier this year.  |  Observer photo

More LSHA stories are here.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On Monday evening, June 13, Meridian Behavioral Health pitched its proposal to use the vacated Lake Shore Hospital.

Former Columbia County County Manager and present part-time Authority Exec Director Dale Williams has facilitated the proposal process. It has dragged out and has been highlighted by late proposals, undated proposals, and folks mysteriously showing up during one presentation.

Meridian Behavioral Health Care has been in the game since the beginning, and its final proposal left nothing to the imagination.

Meridian Behavioral Health Care is looking to take over the vacated hospital and establish a mental health facility with inpatient and outpatient care and a pharmacy.

Many public officials have come out in favor of the Meridian proposal.

On Monday evening, one of Columbia County’s drug experts came out against the Meridian proposal.

Sylvester Warren: Community Activist, Convicted Drug Dealer

Sylvester Warren address the LSHA BoardMr. Warren came to the lectern and told the Chairman, “I do want to take my time if you don't mind, Mr. Chairman, and really express myself as it relates to the community; as it relates to the proposal that has been presented before us.”

The Chairman did not object.

Mr. Warren introduced himself, "Sylvester Warren III, for the record."

Mr. Warren said he favored a full-scale hospital coming to the area, but that after talking to Exec. Dir. Williams and others, "that is not going to happen.”

"District 10 is a predominantly black community. It's the poorest community on the totem pole in this County other than Five Points. So, that's a concern of mine," he said, adding that he still lives there by choice and is passionate about mental health.

He said, “It’s about where you put those types of facilities,” explaining “those types” as “drug rehab - drug treatment.”

He said, "The last thing you want to do is get somebody here that's hooked on heroin because we don't have a heroin issue in the black community right now, but we do have a lot of crime taking place."

Mr. Warren said that crime is heavily concentrated in District 10 (the location of the hospital) and “next to Lake Shore Hospital.”

Claims about crime around the hospital go back to 2016 when Mr. Warren was in prison. Those claims were used by the then Governor's Board and its infamous first Executive Director, Jackson P. "Jack" Berry, to clear cut a park that had been next to the hospital for fifty years.


The Hospital is at the top left. Manager Berry called the park an "illegal drug store," something the PD could not verify. Councilman Jake Hill said at the time, "It would have been nice if someone asked us about cutting down the trees." You can read about this LSHA series of fiascos beginning here. Board members Brandon Beil and Lory Chancy are still on the board.

At the time, Mr. Berry claimed the park was used as a drug store. Police records did not support that statement then and do not support it now.

The hospital is next to a lake, a swamp, vast areas of cleared city parcels, parking lots, and the City's downtown.

On Tuesday, LCPD Chief Butler told your reporter, "We have car accidents and stuff, but not criminal activity. Right around the Hospital Authority – no."

Sylvester Warren address the LSHA BoardMr. Warren continued, "My fear is that if you bring a facility that's treating people for drugs, all you are welcomin' is people who are lookin' at the drug trade and sayin' -- how can I make my next buck, and where is my next set of clientele? That would be a seven-county clientele."

Mr. Warren said he had a past as a drug dealer, and "if you put a seven-county -- a seven-county drug treatment center here -- if I was still in my former days, I would go right up that street and buy every house and turn them into trap houses."

Trap houses are drug houses where people buy-sell-use drugs.

Mr. Warren said, “I believe if that happens, I'm more than certain, because I am still connected to people that are part of the street community, and that is what you have. And it will be worse in this community. And I tell people all the time. And I don't mean any ill will by it -- it's just the fact of the matter.”

Mr. Warren suggested an alternate place for the Meridian mental health facility.

“There is plenty of room on West 90. Put it out there by Nick Patel [hotel owner]. When they leave there, they can go get a hotel. They can stay there at Nick's place. They can go eat at Chick Fillet. Why we can’t put it out there?”

Mr. Warren continued, “That’s my attitude. That's my concern. And it's a real concern, not based on some hypothetical. Based on experience. And based on facts of what would take place. It would mean mayhem.”

Cowards “about standing up for what’s right”

Sylvester Warren address the LSHA BoardMr. Warren said, “There's a lot of people unlike me that they talk to you all behind the scene: commissioners, elected officials, people from the downtown corridor. They will call me in private, but they are cowards about coming up here and standing up for what's right.”

Mr. Warren continued, “I don't think that's the right location. I support the concept. I a hundred percent support the concept. My mama had mental illness. And be willin’ to do anything else. Find em’ another property; find them other things.”

Mr. Warren said he would do whatever it takes to protect the community from the Meridian concept.

“We will pack this house. And you'll see a protest. And you will see things in this community that you've never seen; if you try to bring a state hospital and a seven-county drug rehab center here when I am already working day and night, the police department, that's not sufficient. The police department is not reacting to the crime that is taking place in this community on the gun violence and the drugs, and then you're gonna bring more burden on this community by puttin' in a drug treatment center. That makes no sense … Thank you.”

Police Chief Butler

Police Chief Butler told your reporter, “There are drug treatment centers all over the country. If it causes it to be a drug hotspot - between the Police Department, DEA, and the Sheriff’s Office, we would concentrate resources in that area.”

Chief Butler added, “We work with Meridian all the time. We work with them to get people the help that they need. There is communication between our officers and Meridian. They are a good organization.”

About the trap houses, Chief Butler added, “Meridian and their counselors would catch on real quick and let us know.”

Meridian

After listening to Mr. Warren’s comments, your reporter reached out to Meridian's CEO Don Savoie, via email and asked the following questions:

• Do drug dealers and operatives move into areas around your facilities?

• Are drug transactions in those areas an issue? What kind of issue?

• Is this a big problem, or is law enforcement on alert for that?

Epilogue

Meridians CEO Don Savoie did not respond.

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