Troubled home in Lexington gets new owner, but its future remains uncertain

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comMarch 30, 2014 

A troubled residential home off of Versailles Road that has been in the cross-hairs of city and state regulators has a new owner.

But the future of the Messner Home and the 40 men with mental illness and other disabilities that live there remains in doubt.

Martha Bell, a 12-year employee of the Messner Home, bought the property that includes three buildings on Feb. 24 from Ralph Messner, longtime owner of the facility. Bell has applied for a boarding home license with the state Department for Public Health. She said Friday that the campus had had a preliminary inspection, and she will know in the next week whether it had passed and can remain open.

"We are working really hard," Bell said of cleaning up and making repairs to the facility that has buildings on Versailles Road and Hill Rise Court.

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services typically licenses and regulates homes where the mentally ill and mentally disabled live in a group setting. One of the three Messner buildings is overseen by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a residential home for veterans and receive inspections.

But two of the buildings have had no oversight for decades.

The home was opened as a halfway house in 1959 by Ralph Messner's mother and has grown to three buildings. In 1996, the state took the Messner home to court after an investigation found "filthy mattresses, insect infestation, soiled rooms and physical plant deterioration."

But a Fayette Circuit Court judge ruled that because one of three buildings on the campus was for veterans and regulated by the VA, Messner did not have to be licensed or regulated by the state.

A 1998 state Court of Appeals opinion upheld the lower court's decision.

Problems at Messner continued.

Kentucky Protection and Advocacy, an independent state agency that protects and promotes the rights of persons with disabilities, has been pushing the state to regulate Messner since 2011.

Marsha Hockensmith, the director of Protection and Advocacy, said during a visit in 2011 that her staff found bed bug infestation, soiled mattresses and bedding, and blood on the walls. Additionally, there were no shower curtains and no doors to the bathrooms.

There also have been ongoing complaints from the Rose Hill neighborhood about panhandling and pestering by Messner residents.

"There has to be some kind of oversight," Hockensmith said. "Even if folks had an issue, there was no one they could report those issues to."

After Hockensmith and the cabinet put pressure on Ralph Messner, he eventually applied for a boarding home license this year. But that application was denied, according to documents from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services that the Herald-Leader obtained through an Open Records Act request. According to the documents, Messner has two third-degree indecent exposure convictions. The documents do not give any more details about the convictions. Fayette court records show no criminal convictions for Messner.

It's also unclear whether the VA knew of Messner's convictions. But Bell said Friday that she thought the VA certification for the group home was from many years ago.

Desti Stimes, a spokeswoman for the VA, said the VA was not aware of Messner's prior convictions and does criminal background checks only when a home applies to be part of its residential program. It does not do ongoing background checks, she said.

After Messner's application was denied, the cabinet sent him a cease-and-desist order, saying he had to shut down by March 11. When Bell bought the campus on Feb. 24, the state agreed not to shutter the facility until she could apply for a boarding home license.

Bell said Messner turned 80 this year, and they have been talking about her taking over for many years. "This has been in the works for three or four years," Bell said.

Beth Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the boarding home application was pending.

Two people who have state-appointed guardians remain at the facility. Ten people with state-appointed guardians have been moved in recent weeks, she said.

Hockensmith said Protection and Advocacy staff also have helped other residents find placements if they ask to leave.

Bell said that if her application is approved, there will be changes at Messners. Things are already improving, she said. "But I've only had a month," she said.

"To be honest, it was not in good shape," Bell said. "I just signed a contract for all new windows. We are going to put a new roof on one of the buildings and hopefully put a new roof on the second building."

New regulations for residents also will be implemented — such as no smoking in bedrooms, no alcohol and standards for cleanliness. Bell also is trying to ensure that residents who need treatment for mental illness get that help, she said.

She is considering forming a nonprofit. Most of the men who live at Messners receive a Social Security disability check, a portion of which pays their rent. But there are many men who need stable, secure housing but have no means to pay for it.

"We don't want these men to be homeless," Bell said.

Beth Musgrave: (859)231-3205. Twitter:@HLCityhall

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