AUGUSTA — Augusta Planning Board members and advocates for people with mental illness expressed concern Tuesday the state’s proposal to build a new, secure 21-bed rehabilitation facility next to Riverview Psychiatric Center to treat patients who have committed crimes sounds more like a correctional facility than a hospital.

Board members voted to table the proposal and expressed frustration that most of their many questions about the proposal could not be answered by the lone man representing the state at Tuesday’s meeting, who said he could not provide any more information than what was submitted by the state as part of its application materials, most of which related to the building itself, not what would take place inside it.

“We’d like someone from the department to come here who can answer questions about what is going to be happening there,” said Justin Poirier, chairman of the board, after Dave Nadeau, representing the state, was unable to answer board member questions about the proposal including specifics on where patients of the facility would come from, details of what crimes they may have committed, why it wouldn’t be part of the adjacent existing Riverview Psychiatric Center, or just how secure the facility would be.

Whether the proposed new building would be a correctional facility or hospital is important, both to advocates for people with mental illness and to the Planning Board. It is important to the board because if the facility is a correctional facility, it would be a conditional use in the zoning district where it would be built, and thus face a higher level of review and have to be deemed compatible with the neighborhood. If it is deemed to be a hospital, it would be a permitted use and, according to city Development Director Matt Nazar, not need to meet as strict a standard for neighborhood compatibility.

“I think location and neighborhood compatibility is very important here,” said Corey Vose, board member, noting the facility’s relatively close proximity to the youth athletic fields of the Capital Area Recreation Association on Piggery Road. “I need more answers from the neighborhood compatibility standpoint. I haven’t seen evidence it is a correctional facility or a hospital. From the way it has been explained, it sounds more like a correctional facility than a hospital.”

Application materials for the proposal state it would house patients “found not criminally responsible for committing crimes by reason of mental defect or insanity and, therefore, cannot be housed within either a state prison or a state psychiatric facility.”

The proposal is part of a state Department of Health and Human Services effort to regain federal certification for Riverview and the $20 million annual federal funding reimbursement that comes with it.

The federal agency that oversees Riverview funding revoked the hospital’s certification about two years ago after regulators found many problems during an audit, including the use of stun guns, pepper spray and handcuffs on patients, improper record-keeping, medication errors and failure to report progress made by patients.

The new facility would take forensic patients from the 92-bed Riverview facility who do not need hospital-level care, relieving pressure at that facility.

In August 2015, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said creating a new, separate treatment facility for mentally ill patients who have committed crimes might be the only way for the state hospital to regain that certification.

National Alliance on Mental Illness staff with the Maine branch of the organization said Tuesday they would support the creation of a new facility that provides services that meet the standard of hospital-level care, but said they were opposed to the current proposal because it seemed to have more of an emphasis on containing patients, not treating them.

“In a correctional facility, the main purpose is correction, and holding someone for their safety and the safety of others,” said Sophie Gabrion, director of public education for NAMI Maine. She said her organization was concerned the new facility would be correctional, not treatment-related. “At Riverview, when you go in now, there is an emphasis on care, whereas a correctional facility is there to hold people in.”

The new standalone facility would be privately operated with the state seeking companies to submit bids to run the unit, according to Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

It would also be built by a company selected through a bid process. Application materials state a company has not yet been selected. Work, if approved, could start this fall and be complete in 2017.

Five construction firms have submitted information about their qualifications to express interest in bidding on the project, according to David Heidrich, spokesman for the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services. The Bureau of General Services, which is within that department and oversees state building projects, is the applicant proposing the project to the city.

The state estimates it will cost $3 million to $5 million to build.

It would be built adjacent to Riverview on an area that is now parking lot and grass next to the state-owned offices of the east campus on the grounds of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute.

The property is zoned as BP — Institutional/Business/Professional by the city. Government services are an allowed use within the zone.

Delaine Nye, board member, sought to learn how secure the building would be.

Nadeau said it would be a locked building, with 14-foot-high fencing topped by razor wire surrounding a recreational area there, but not the entire property.

Tom Connors, a board member who works in the mental health field and abstained from the vote to table the proposal, said the facility would generally be a step-down in both security and level of treatment compared with Riverview.

The board tabled the proposal until their first meeting in October and asked the applicant to come with state Department of Health and Human Services staff who could answer questions about treatment at the facility.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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