Gov. Janet Mills hasn’t committed to opening a new, 16-bed state psychiatric facility in Bangor that’s about three-and-a-half months away from completion. But as key lawmakers continue to call for the facility to be located in Augusta, newly released documents from the state show that former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration essentially cut off Mills’ power to change course.
A lease the LePage administration signed last May with the development company that’s building the secure facility on the campus of Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor obligates the state to $11.3 million in lease payments over 30 years for a building the LePage administration estimated would cost between $2 million and $3 million.
What’s more, the agreement specifically bars the state from terminating the lease so it can open a similar facility elsewhere, such as in Augusta — a provision that a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice and court-appointed watchdog over Maine’s mental health services called unusual in state leases.
“I’ve never seen that particular clause,” said Dan Wathen, the former Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice who is the court-appointed watchdog for Maine’s mental health system.
And even if the state came up with a different use for the Bangor building so it could open a secure psychiatric facility in Augusta — closer to the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center, from which it would take in patients — its options would still be limited: The lease requires that the state use the Bangor building as a residential care facility licensed for at least seven residents.
The new documents released by the state break down for the first time how LePage negotiated the construction and lease of a privately owned state psychiatric facility that he and lawmakers fought over for years — and which LePage’s administration pursued largely beyond public view.
“It seems to me we have a hornet’s nest,” said state Sen. Geoff Gratwick, a Bangor Democrat who has favored locating the psychiatric facility in Augusta so patients can continue seeing the same care providers to whom they’ve become accustomed during their time at Riverview.
While the LePage administration and lawmakers talked about opening a secure psychiatric step-down facility for years as a way to help Riverview Psychiatric Center regain the federal certification it lost in 2013, the final arrangements for the Bangor facility only came together in LePage’s last year in office.
In May 2018, the LePage administration sold almost three state-owned acres on the Dorothea Dix campus to a Hermon development company owned by Thomas Ellis.
The same month, the two parties signed the lease under which Ellis agreed to build a 9,500-square-foot facility, then lease it back to the state for 30 years, according to documents provided by the state Department of Administration and Financial Services.
Construction of the 16-bed facility on State Hospital Drive started last summer and is expected to finish by the middle of May.
‘All possible options’
Last month, the single-story building had a roof and walls that were wrapped in reflective insulation, but still no windows. It had the look of a stretched-out, ranch-style home, hidden from the main roads that pass through that section of Bangor and dwarfed by the old brick buildings that stand nearby on the Dorothea Dix campus.
After buying those 2.69 acres from the state for $60,000 and negotiating the 30-year lease with the state, Ellis Commercial Development was responsible for the costs of designing and building the facility, and ensuring it’s ready to use as a secure psychiatric facility by May 19.
It was not clear exactly how much the project will cost the company. Thomas Ellis did not respond to a phone call or emails seeking information. An interim spokesman for the state Department of Administration and Financial Services, Dick Thompson, said the state has no record of those costs.
However, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services previously estimated the project would cost between $2 million and $3 million, according to a legislative financial document from 2017. Also, Ellis Commercial Development recently took out a $3.45 million mortgage on the property, records at the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds show.
Long-term, Ellis Commercial Development will have to pay property taxes to the city of Bangor; the cost of building repairs, maintenance and improvements; and bills for any insurance.
The state will have to cover all heating, water and other utilities, according to the lease. Beyond any building-associated costs, it will pay to run the facility and provide patient services.