March 6, 2013

Effort to move patients back to AMHI stalled in committee

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — An effort by an Augusta legislator to move mental health patients who have committed violent criminal acts out of neighborhoods and back onto the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus stalled Wednesday when a legislative committee raised concerns about selling state property without advertising it to the public.

L.D. 340, a bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, would authorize the sale of former group homes at 6 and 10 Arsenal Heights Drive on the state’s east side campus and the grounds of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute.

Staff graphic by Sharon Wood

click image to enlarge

File photo shows 6 and 10 Arsenal Heights Drive in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, is sponsoring L.D. 340 in response to residents who complained when federal rules forced Motivational Services to relocate the patients off state property. The move caught Augusta officials off guard over the summer and sparked fear among those living near Glenridge Drive and Green Street, the two new locations of the group homes.

Wilson is asking fellow lawmakers to approve a bill that would authorize the sale of 6 and 10 Arsenal Heights Drive to the nonprofit mental health care provider that runs the group homes so the patients can be moved back to the former AMHI campus.

“The reason for this bill is because we are facing a unique circumstance in Augusta,” Wilson told members of the State and Local Government Committee. “We’re talking about forensic patients located within hundreds of feet of a preschool. It’s really disturbing to a number of people in my community.”

During discussion of the bill, Republicans and Democrats expressed concern that the bill calls for the buildings to be sold to a specific buyer.

“I’m uncomfortable,” said Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield. “I don’t have enough information to know if it’s the best deal.”

Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, said the state has a public process for selling property that should be followed.

“I have an uncomfortable feeling about giving exceptions to certain people,” he said.

Don McCormack, director of the state Bureau of General Services, said after last year’s sale of state-owned property in Thomaston to the warden of the Maine State Prison — a deal that prompted an investigation and the return of the property to state hands — new guidelines were put in place to govern sales.

“It would be much cleaner if we were able to market to the general public and give public notice,” he said.

Motivational Services was required to move out of the state-owned property last year because federal guidelines would not allow the patients to continue to receive Social Security disability and other federal benefits while they lived on state property.

Dr. Richard Weiss, executive director of Motivational Services, said Wednesday that legislators need to consider that the Arsenal Heights homes are set up for residential use and would be of limited interest to other parties.

“It would only be in our interest to serve people with serious mental illness who the hospital cleared for discharge,” he said.

McCormack said the homes, which were commonly referred to as the “Doctors’ Houses,” were slated for demolition at one time and would not be suitable for use as state office space. He also noted that a 2001 master plan calls for those two buildings and three others to be demolished to create an open space public park.

Rep. Sharri MacDonald, R-Old Orchard Beach, reminded fellow committee members why the bill came up in the first place.

“The Augusta community is saying help us,” she said. “This is a significant issue for this community. Whether it’s the truth or not, they are feeling unsafe. I do think it needs to go out to bid but we need to fix it if the community is scared.”

Wilson pleaded with the committee to consider the Augusta situation an exception because the state put the city in a tough position by moving the patients without any notice. The committee likely will take up the bill again next week, and Wilson said he’s prepared to work to find a compromise.

“If there was one reason to circumvent a process, I would think it would be to protect public safety,” he said. “I am not trying to cheat the taxpayers. I am trying to correct a wrong the state made.”

Susan Cover — 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com

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