AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is considering state-owned property in Bangor as the location for a new forensic psychiatric facility that Democrats blocked from being built in Augusta.
After being rebuffed in efforts to build the facility near Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, the administration’s new plan is to build it on 6.28 state-owned acres on Hogan Road, not far from the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, confirmed Friday afternoon. The property had been listed for $495,000.
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat from Freeport, said she learned general information about the proposed new site on Wednesday. LePage said Thursday he expects an announcement about the location as early as next week.
“We were informed of that last night, that it is a building the department already owns, so they would be making significant renovations, I believe,” Gideon said Thursday.
The Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center is a 51-bed state-run psychiatric treatment center on State Street in Bangor.
Gideon said she had been given few details about the new proposed site for the forensic unit. Steele said the site has been for sale but will be taken off the market to make way for the new forensic facility.
Earlier this year, the administration proposed a 21-bed facility next to Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta and won approval from the city’s planning board, but the project was blocked by the Legislative Council on Nov. 30, when Gideon and two other Democrats who were still in office at the time — former House Speaker Mark Eves and former House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe — voted against it.
Democrats want LePage’s proposal, which involves a private company leasing and operating the facility, vetted in public. Lawmakers have submitted a series of questions they say have not been answered by the administration, ranging from how patients would be evaluated and referred there to what protections would be in place for patient, staff and public safety.
LePage vowed to move ahead with the project outside Augusta, where the Legislative Council, which approves building projects in the Capitol Area, has no jurisdiction. Gideon and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport have agreed to hold legislative hearings about the Augusta proposal in the first week of January, but LePage rejected that on Wednesday.
“She’s insisting on reopening the whole thing and I’m not going to do that,” LePage said during a WGAN radio interview.
Gideon reiterated that Democrats want a public review of LePage’s proposal.
“One of the few things we know is that the intention is to go out to a vendor and have a vendor run it,” Gideon said. “Would we prefer state employees or a conversation to happen about state employees running it first? Absolutely. … That doesn’t mean we are opposed to the idea of privatization but it raises a number of questions.”
Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, has proposed bills in the past that sought to increase Dorothea Dix’s role in caring for forensic patients, but those bills failed. He said Friday that LePage’s latest proposal may have merit but that the governor should wait another two weeks for the hearings planned by legislative leadership.
“Dorothea Dix has continued to come up as a possible resource and it has been largely rejected,” said Frey. “The administration has actually taken steps to try to shut Dorothea Dix down.”
In 2011, a task force was formed as a provision in LePage’s 2012-13 biennial budget to determine the future of the facility. After heavy lobbying from the Bangor-area community of residents and mental health care professionals, the task force recommended against closure.
Frey said he wants to know more about the proposal before he decides whether he’ll support it. Among his chief concerns is the safety of patients and residents as well as security at the facility, which would be located adjacent a residential area.
“I learned about this through the newspaper, which is discouraging,” said Frey. “As the representative for this district, it would be nice to have some information about what they want to do in my legislative district.”
Joseph Baldacci, chairman of the Bangor City Council, said Friday that he would take a “wait-and-see attitude” toward the proposal.
“My No. 1 priority has always been keeping Dorothea Dix open,” he said. “The other thing we need to see how this would impact overall policies of the state treating the mentally ill, both civilly and criminally.”
Baldacci, an attorney whose practice includes civil and criminal matters, said that perhaps the accreditation of a forensic unit required the building of a new facility rather than the renovation an existing one.
“I don’t see the location as problem as long as security is tight,” he said.
That might surface as a concern among nearby business and residents because in 2011, two patients, including one charged with murder, escaped from Dorothea Dix.
William Hall, now 35, became the focus an intense manhunt the evening of June 27 after he scaled a fence around an outside smoking area on the grounds of Dorothea Dix. He had been undergoing an evaluation since shortly after his arrest June 16 in connection with the June 9 death of Melvin F. Abreau, 28, of Bangor and Bronx, New York.
Hall in 2013 was found not criminally responsible for Abreau’s death and the escape. He was ordered to be held at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta until he is no longer a threat to himself or the community.
The original Dorothea Dix facility, called the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital, opened on July 1, 1901. It was built on a pastoral hill, named Hepatica Hill for its small lavender flowers, overlooking Bangor and the Penobscot River, according to a history of the center.
The highest patient census was in 1970 with 1,200 patients; however, with a concerted downsizing effort in the 1970s, the census fell to 470 in 1974, the history states. There were approximately 300 patients through much of the 1980s.
The facility currently averages between 40 and 45 patients.
Today, the Maine Veterans Home and other state offices, including the Maine Warden Service, Department of Environmental Protection and Probation, are located on the sprawling Dorothea Dix campus. The property borders State Street, Hogan Road and Mount Hope Avenue.
BDN writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.