Location, access not the best, but staff says service still good
A former staff member says Pierce County Reproductive Health Services' new River Falls location is dangerous for clients.
While agreeing the new office at 174 S. Riverwalk isn't ideal, Public Health Department workers say it's not that bad, improvements are being made, and it's the best option available in River Falls.
"If I had a kid in a car seat, a diaper bag on my shoulder and a two-year-old, I don't know how I'd get down those stairs," said Ellen Butts, a nurse practitioner who worked for Pierce County Public Health for 20 years before quitting in April.
"I left because of poor management decisions," said Butts. "This is one of them."
She said the steep stairway that is the only public access to the new offices and the lack of free parking are obstacles for the women who use the service.
"If we hadn't found this spot, I truly believe the staff would have been brought back here," said Public Health Director Caralynn Hodgson, speaking from her office in Ellsworth Friday.
She learned in January that the city-owned Ingram Center would be torn down, eliminating the offices Reproductive Health Services had rented for over 20 years. Hodgson said she spent much of the next four months looking for a new location in River Falls.
Her management team visited over 20 sites and called about others.
"Some of them were way too small," said Hodgson.
While the service had 2,400-square feet in the Ingram Center, Hodgson said the county's building supervisor figured Reproductive Health needed at least 1,500-square feet.
"That threw out a lot of sites that we went to," she said.
There were much larger sites available, but those were open spaces and would have been expensive to finish for offices and bathrooms, said Hodgson. Also she said those spaces would have cost $2,000 to $3,000 a month to rent. The Ingram Center site had cost $135 a month and the UW-River Falls was picking up half that cost because the county provides services to university students.
"It was looking kind of bleak," Hodgson said of early attempts to find space.
Then a staff member told managers about the lower level of the Edina Realty building.
"We all said this was by far the best site we'd seen that would meet our needs," said Hodgson. "Is it perfect? Of course not."
The site has space enough for the five regular workers and the nurse practitioners, who don't work in the office fulltime, said Hodgson.
"It's smaller than Ingram Center, but a lot of that was dead space," she said, explaining that the because of the layout of the old building, the usable space wasn't as large as it sounds.
Also, said Hodgson, the current landlord may open up more space for Reproductive Health.
"That's going to really help a lot."
As for the stairs, Hodgson said the owner is having fixtures changed to improve the lighting and other modifications are being made to improve the visibility of the steps.
The new site has no handicapped access, no place to put strollers and the nearby parking is metered, said Butts, who also worries about those impediments.
The River Falls office isn't handicapped accessible, agreed Hodgson. "We admit that and understand that."
She said the department meets federal standards for handicapped accessibility because its office in Ellsworth and satellite sites in Plum City and Elmwood are accessible.
Besides, said Hodgson, "We have very few clients who require that."
She said a board member suggested staff look into installing an electric chair to go up and down the stairs and that is being done.
While the Ingram Center had its own parking lot and free on-street parking, the only convenient parking at the new site is metered.
"You're talking low income people with children," said Butts.
She predicts clients won't be using the meters. They will be parking blocks away and "wrangling" strollers and children across Main Street.
"I can't prove that, but I'd bet money on it," said Butts, who shuddered at the image.
"The parking would have been a big issue no matter where we would have gone (in River Falls)," responded Hodgson. She said the metered parking for the service is at least on a quiet side street.
Also, said Hodgson, two County Board members are talking to local businesses in an attempt to secure free nearby parking.
Management and the landlord have been doing their best to work out the inconveniences, said Hodgson, adding that at $890 a month, this is a site her department can afford.
"It's a workable spot," she said. "Yes, there are things that have to be worked out and yet it's a rent that at this point in time we can afford."
While agreeing that the office is darker, harder to find, smaller and more inconvenient than Ingram Center, Reproductive Health nurse Jena Most said workers are doing the best they can to make it work for clients, many of whom are university students.
"It's coming," said Most. "We're trying to make it homey."
The worst days are the two days a month the office holds WIC clinics, she said.
"It's hard to run both of our clinics together, but we do," said Most. "Sometimes you just have to make do."
She added, "The best thing is we're still in River Falls."
The River Falls office is the main office for reproductive health services in Pierce County. It also offers WIC, a nutrition program for women and infants, as well as immunizations for children.
Hours at the Riverwalk office are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday; and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The phone number is 425-8003.