The Bangor City Council on Monday night will weigh its legal options for slowing or blocking construction of the psychiatric facility that Gov. Paul LePage intends to have built in the city, Council Chairman Joe Baldacci said Friday.
Baldacci said he is not necessarily opposed to having a fenced, 21-bed “step-down” forensic psychiatric facility on Hogan Road, but he thinks Bangor’s residents and community leaders should first get their questions answered. (A step-down facility’s inmates have court permission to leave the facility on occasion.)
“My issue is that this is going to be a privately run prison on Hogan Road that has had zero input from the community where it will be located,” Baldacci said. “Whether it’s called a step-down facility or not, this will have to be a secure facility to hold people involuntarily who in one way or another have been charged with criminal offenses, and most often they’re felony charges. Security, public safety, city resources and the impact on the city are all legitimate questions.”
Baldacci said City Manager Cathy Conlow reached out to Gov. Paul LePage to ask for a meeting with state officials about the planned facility and was told to look up the information online.
“He basically said, ‘We don’t need a meeting. All the information is on state’s websites,” Baldacci said, sounding frustrated. “The state has had no input from the community.”
Bangor has a couple options for stopping or slowing the project, including issuing a moratorium under the city’s land use code, Baldacci said.
“The attorney general has also issued a statement saying [LePage] does not have the legal authority to do this without legislative approval,” the council chairman added.
Conlow asked the governor what impact the facilitywould have on the city and its services. The governor responded that there would be none.
In a July 11 letter, LePage said, “The State will ensure that the selected entity will provide quality care for the patients, ensuring that participation from the City of Bangor and its services will not be necessary.”
That is unless a fire breaks out or a prisoner escapes, Baldacci said.
The state on Tuesday selected Cianbro Corp. of Pittsfield to build the 8,300-square-foot rehabilitation facility on state-owned property on Hogan Road, basically across the road from Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, to house patients found not responsible for crimes they have committed or who are unfit to stand trial.
The new psych center would serve patients who have been in Augusta’s Riverview Psychiatric Center or Dorothea Dix patients but “no longer meet medical necessity for acute psychiatric hospitalization” and who already have permission from the court to leave the hospitals on occasion, according to the request for proposals for operators that has a Sept. 13 deadline.
“Dorothea Dix is primarily for civil commitments, so most of the forensic patients will come from Riverview,” Baldacci said.
He and City Councilor Sarah Nichols said they are wary of a new facility, especially when Dorothea Dix has 100,000-square feet of space that is underutilized. They also are concerned about transporting inmates up from Riverview in Augusta.
“Whatever happens, I want to make sure that the Dorothea Dix Center is a part of that conversation and we are not making a new facility in place of one that is already up and running,” Nichols said. “Obviously, if this is supposed to complement Riverview, I feel it makes sense for this facility to be closer to Riverview, but only because of logistical reasons for the patients being served, not because I am opposed to providing more mental health services in Bangor.”
Audrey Dyer who lives near the Hogan Road property said she sees no problem with the project.
“I’ve lived across the street from the state’s mental health hospital since 1954. And it’s fine,” said Dyer, who once worked in a store at the state hospital.
There have been inmate escapes over the years. And, Dyer said, once a female patient walked right into the home she shared with her now deceased husband, John, who worked for years in the facility’s kitchen.
“I can’t understand why they don’t use that institution instead of building a new place,” Dyer said. “These are people. And these people have got to have a place.”
Before efforts to deinstitutionalize Dorothea Dix were started in the 1970s, dropping the capacity from 1,100 to just 51 patients, “People had a place to go, and they provided everything. There were church services, movies, dances,” Dyer said. “Now, it seems there are a lot of people out on the streets.”
The LePage administration hopes the new Bangor facility will alleviate overcrowding at Augusta’s troubled Riverview Psychiatric Center, which lost its federal accreditation in 2013 because of overcrowding and inadequate staffing and for using handcuffs and stun guns to subdue violent patients. State officials were recently notified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is recalling $51 million in payments made to Maine since decertification.
“This issue is partly an issue of confidence and partly an issue of lack of communication,” Baldacci said. “They’ve been fined $51 million, which does not make me confident that they can run a facility like the one they are proposing.”