AUGUSTA — The Planning Board approved a new, secure 21-bed rehabilitation facility next to Riverview Psychiatric Center to treat patients who have committed crimes but don’t require the level of hospital care provided at Riverview despite concerns about the security of the building and safety of nearby neighborhoods.

Board members approved the new building in a 5-0 vote, attaching a condition that all entrances and exits at the facility have at least two locked doors.

The door requirement was added to address concerns of board members including A. Delaine Nye, who expressed concerns about a door on one wing of the building that might be a way a patient could escape, either by sneaking out behind a staff member or attacking a staff member.

State officials said they would look to incorporate a double door into the design of the north wing of the building, the lone entrance or exit that didn’t have two doors on the plan now.

Nye said she was also concerned about whether the building will have adequate staffing to ensure the safety of patients, workers and neighbors, expressing concern about reports of patient attacks on staff at Riverview.

“I have concerns about security. All of us have been reading in the paper for a long time about the staffing issues at Riverview, not having adequate staff to manage patients there,” she said. “I look at this and suspect others have the same concern. I’m concerned about single doors that go directly to the outside, even though they’re locked. And whether a very crafty patient can overcome a staff member, find their way outside.”

Last month 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, 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.

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

State Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, as well as Dr. Ann LeBlanc, director of the State Forensic Service, and other state officials presented information to the board Tuesday.

Mayhew said the state shares Nye’s concerns about security and the building would be built and staffed to meet standards designed to make sure such facilities are safe and secure. She did not provide an estimate of the number of staff who would be working at any given time.

“We have a vested interest in this model succeeding, and the only way it will succeed is … if we can ensure the highest level of security for the facility,” Mayhew said. “It is absolutely critical to the department to have an appropriate level of staffing.”

She said security would be in line with security at the existing Riverview.

Board member Peter Pare noted that the board was limited in what aspects of the proposal it can review because a group home is a permitted use in that zone. He said the city would have to rely, in part, on state licensing requirements for group homes to help ensure the facility will be safe.

Board members and advocates for people with mental illness expressed concern at last month’s meeting that 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 sounded more like a correctional facility than a hospital.

Mayhew said Tuesday it is neither. Instead, she said, it will be licensed as a residential care facility which, under the city’s zoning ordinance, would be defined as a group home.

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.

Mayhew said creating a new, separate treatment facility for mentally ill patients who have committed crimes is essential for the state hospital to regain that certification.

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.

Day-to-day clinical operations inside it would be performed not by state workers but by a company which would be selected by the state in a competitive bid process.

Nearby resident Peggy Lamb said she’d prefer it be run by state employees.

“I’m used to state employees running Riverview right now, and I feel they are of a high level of competence,” she said. “I’m wondering if we’re going to have the same level of employees at this new facility that’ll make it safe. A private company has to make a profit whereas a state run hospital does not.”

It would also be built by a company selected through a bid process. Work, if approved, could start this fall and be complete in 2017. State Bureau of General Services officials said they have three construction firms remaining as finalists, and they expect to select one of those firms for the job by the end of the week.

“The state is excited to move forward with this project,” Mayhew said in a letter to the board. “We have construction companies awaiting bid decisions that are standing by to begin the work.”

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 BP — Institutional/Business/Professional by the city. Government services and group homes are permitted uses within the zone.

Tom Connors, a board member who works in the mental health field, abstained from the vote on the proposal, as did Chairman Justin Poirier, who said he had a possible conflict of interest.

Matt Nazar, development director for the city, said a moratorium on any new group homes being built in many zones in the city was passed by the City Council Aug. 18 and the state’s application was submitted Aug. 12, so the proposal is not subject to the moratorium.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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