COLUMBIA, S.C. (WACH) - People who live in North Columbia are ready to fight to keep their community safe.
At a public hearing Monday night, dozens of people jammed a lecture hall at the Midlands Tech Northeast campus to voice their concerns about an increase of convicted sexual predators being housed at a nearby facility.
"In my neighborhood we have small children that walk to the bus stop by themselves and that's a great concern," said resident Barbara Clark.
More than 40 sexual predators are being housed at the Columbia Regional Care Facility off Farrow Road on the campus of the former Crafts-Farrow state hospital, several miles north of Columbia.
The facility started accepting violent sexual offenders at the facility after the treatment unit for them at the Department of Corrections on Broad River Road maxed out its capacity.
They have been sent there for several years, but state lawmaker Joe McEachern says the number of offenders sent to the Columbia Regional Care Facility has spiked in recent months.
"I just don't think they should be there," said Rep. McEachern, D-Richland. "I believe they pose a serious security risk out there."
Meadowlake Park's recreation center, several churches, and a daycare center are near the facility.
McEachern organized the meeting after hearing concerns from a consitutuent. Representatives from the Department of Mental Health, and the Department of Corrections were on hand to answer questions and share information.
Residents want the convicted offenders gone immediately and worry about the effectiveness of a private firm that provides security at the Columbia Regional Care Facility.
The state has contracted with the firm at the location for at least a decade.
"They've always done an excellent job in maintaining the security both inside the facility as well as externally," said Mark Binkley of the SC Department of Mental Health. "There's never been an escape from that facility."
Despite the firm's track record, residents argued that one escape in the future would be "one too many."
The explanations offered weren't enough for some. Several people pointed out that they attended a similar public hearing over the last few years when state officials were looking to house overflow at the Manning Correctional Institution, also off Farrow Road.
"We feel like we're the dumping ground for the things that other people don't want," said resident Susanne Cecere. "That's what we said six years ago, never again, and here we are back at the same place."
State mental health officials say the offenders will be gone from the Farrow Road facility within 8-10 months. They have brokered an agreement with the Department of Corrections to renovate what is known as the Congaree Unit at the Broad River Road facility. The $550,000 project would house the sexual offenders' treatment unit and increase the Department of Correction's capacity at that location.
Residents say they will keep fighting to have the sexual offenders removed from the Farrow Road facility as soon as possible.