Road to nowhere?

From The Eugene Register Guard, January 22, 2012

Supporters of a planned psychiatric hospital in Junction City hope that isn’t the case, but it faces an uphill battle in the Oregon Legislature next month

As soon as the rains slow this spring, preliminary construction work could begin on the long-­promised state psychiatric hospital next to Highway 99 south of town.

READ – all about the Oregon State Hospital

For a community that has dealt with uncertainty over the past five years as the project repeatedly morphed and got hit with delays, that’s tantalizingly close.

“There’s been a lot of highs and lows throughout the process, and I think the community members who have been following it are taking a ‘we’ll believe it when we see it’ approach,” City Administrator Kevin Watson said.

“Once construction crews are out there and dirt is getting moved around though, there will be more excitement. … I definitely think everyone’s hopeful that it could help out the community in terms of jobs.”

For work to commence this year, however, the Legislature will need to approve during its four-week session in February a $29 million allocation of general fund-backed bonds for the hospital (a small portion of which would go to the nearly completed Salem psychiatric hospital). That allocation would keep the Junction City project moving through next summer and take a big bite out of its total remaining construction costs of $84 million.

But the timing is difficult given state government’s dire financial problems. Projected biennial state revenues have decreased by $300 million since the 2011 legislative session was adjourned. The state debt policy advisory commission recently recommended that the governor and the Legislature not authorize any “net increase in general fund-backed debt” until the end of the 2011-13 biennium.

While the hospital was endorsed publicly by Gov. John Kitzhaber in September, the state’s overstretched debt capacity could swell the Legislature’s ranks of long-standing bipartisan opponents of the Junction City hospital, possibly resulting in yet another construction delay — or even a more permanent derailing.

The importance, for the hospital’s future, of what unfolds next month isn’t lost on Junction City residents, Watson said.

“People will be watching what happens,” he said.

The community care issue

Many people elsewhere in the Lane County also will be watching, given that the hospital is projected ultimately to bring hundreds of permanent jobs to a county hammered by the Great Recession.

In late December, Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Central Point Republican who is the GOP’s point man on budget issues, slammed the Junction City hospital project in his monthly newsletter.

Richardson stressed that moving away from institutional mental health care and focusing on community-based care immediately is cheaper for the state and more humane for patients, arguments long made by mental health advocacy groups and other project opponents.

Richardson claimed that the state could build multiple 16-bed facilities in communities throughout the state for less than the cost of completing the Junction City project. He also wrote that, once opened, those facilities would be eligible for federal matching funds to cover operational costs, unlike the Junction City hospital, where operations would be completely state-funded.

Rep. Val Hoyle, a Eugene Democrat whose district includes Junction City, said Richardson’s newsletter ignored the fact that the Junction City project is intended to serve a population that needs 24-hour supervision and that contains many forensic patients — patients who have plead guilty except for insanity to crimes.

“Some people require hospital-level care,” she said. “And when we close the psychiatric hospitals in Portland and Pendleton, Oregon won’t have enough of those beds.”

OSH Portland and Blue Mountain in Pendleton, which would both require significant renovations to meet federal standards, are currently scheduled to be closed by 2015.

Residential security

Hoyle also criticized a proposal in Richardson’s newsletter that smaller mental health care facilities be placed on industrial land. Richardson argued that doing so could appease “neighborhood placement concerns” by keeping patients with mental illness “far from residential neighborhoods, yet close enough for families to visit and provide needed social support.”

Hoyle responded that “when (mental health advocates) say, ‘We want patients to get their treatment in their community,’ they’re not talking about warehousing them next to warehouses.”

Asked about the industrial land idea, Richardson said he had simply been “vetting” the concept in his newsletter, and that he had since changed his position, based partly on some criticism he received.

However, he disagreed with Hoyle that all forensic patients must be treated in institutional settings.

“The security of community facilities is an issue of design,” he said. “Facilities could be built in a way to harden their security and make them safe for nearby residential areas.”

Richardson also stressed that the possibility of federal matching funds for community facilities is “the financial point that is very powerful.”

Asked if Richardson’s newsletter was indicative of a possible GOP caucus position against the project in the Oregon House — an evenly split chamber where every bill requires bipartisan support to pass — House Republican Leader Kevin Cameron of Salem said that there hadn’t yet been “an in-depth leadership discussion about it.”

But he added, “My personal position is close to” Richardson’s.

“Our bonding capacity is maxed out at the moment,” he said. “2013 is a different year. But to be able to fund the bonds for projects like Junction City, we have to get people working again in private sector.”

In light of the fresh wave of opposition to the Junction City hospital, Hoyle said that she believes the project “has become a political bargaining chip (in Salem) for people to get what they want.”

“It’s unfortunate, because delaying or stopping the project would be very damaging,” she added.

Richardson responded that there was nothing “political” about his opposition to the hospital.

“This is not a new position for me to take,” he said. “This project did not make sense four years ago, and it doesn’t make sense now.”

Getting ready to build

Until the Legislature tells her otherwise, Linda Hammond, director of Oregon’s addictions and mental health treatment programs, is implementing a construction plan that would allow the hospital to open in early 2015, to coincide with the expected closures of satellite state hospitals in Portland and Pendleton.

Under that plan, the 257-acre Junction City site would be “prepped” for construction this spring and summer, Hammond said. That work would include building roadways and utility infrastructure on the property and laying down the foundations of some future buildings.

Most of the actual building construction is set to occur during the summers of 2013 and 2014, Hammond said, with most of the building shells going up in 2013.

Should the Legislature decide to postpone the approval of the hospital bonds for a year, Hammond said, “It would make it extremely difficult to meet the target date of 2015.”

“The biggest driver for construction around this state is that you get short (outdoor) construction windows,” she added.

Fitting the remaining work into two summers rather than three would be challenge, Hammond said, because the Junction City site is generally a “pretty wet” parcel.

While no blueprints or sketches of the facility have been made public yet, hospital design work is scheduled to be finished this year, Hammond said.

Making corrections

Jodie Jones, the project administrator, said that despite state plans to transform the facility into a prison eventually, designers are “first and foremost building a hospital.”

Still, Jones said, care is being taken to avoid plan elements that obviously would be at odds with a prison facility.

For example, designers are leaving space between buildings and the property line, so as to potentially accommodate the outside perimeter fence that a prison might require, but that the state hospital does not.

The hospital also will feature several large group treatment rooms that a prison might not have a use for, Hammond said. Therefore, they will be designed so they can easily be transformed into dormitories.

The transition pre-planning can only go so far, however, Jones said.

“We have to be careful about building something completely to Department of Corrections standards now, because we don’t know how much those standards will change in the years it takes to transition the facility,” she added.

A mental hospital long in the making

  • February 2007: State officials select Salem and Junction City as the preferred sites for two new psychiatric hospitals to replace the aging Oregon State Hospital in Salem. The new 620-bed Salem facility is to open in 2011, while the 360-bed Junction City facility is scheduled for a 2013 opening.
  • September 2008: Work begins on Salem hospital.
  • Spring 2009 to summer 2011: State spends about $25 million on water and sewer infrastructure upgrades in Junction City to accommodate the hospital, as well as a proposed prison, both located on the same 257-acre site on Highway 99.
  • 2010: State hospital planners reduce the size of the Junction City facility to 270 beds.
  • February 2011: Gov. John Kitzhaber reduces the size of Junction City hospital to 174 beds, based on state’s projected needs, and includes all remaining construction costs for the facility — $84 million — in his initial 2011-13 budget. Kitzhaber scraps the proposed prison on the site.
  • June 2011: The Oregon Legislature delays the proposed opening of Junction City hospital until 2015 and approves a $5 million allocation for the project to continue infrastructure and design work. Legislators also unveil long-term plans to transition the hospital into a Department of Corrections facility that would treat prisoners with mental health and addiction issues.
  • September 2011: Kitzhaber publicly endorses the Junction City hospital at a town hall meeting. Kitzhaber stresses his long-term commitment to community-based mental health care and to transforming the Junction City facility into a prison eventually.
  • March 2012: New Salem hospital is set to be entirely completed.
  • Spring-summer of 2012: Junction City site preparation scheduled to begin if Legislature provides funding.
  • Summer of 2013 and 2014: Majority of construction work in Junction City scheduled to occur.
  • Early 2015: Possible opening of Junction City hospital.