BANGOR, Maine — While a recent draft report by a statewide work group recommended keeping Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor open at least for the time being, the Bangor City Council isn’t taking any chances.

Eight councilors met with Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia, City Manager Cathy Conlow, City Solicitor Norm Heitmann, Bangor Director of Health and Community Services Shawn Yardley, and other health care experts Tuesday afternoon to discuss the strategy for keeping the Dix center, which has faced numerous closure attempts over the years, open.

Nearly two hours later, they had a plan.

“We’re forming a regional committee to emphasize that this isn’t just a Bangor issue and to have a stated city policy to advocate for the hospital,” said Councilor Joe Baldacci.

The committee would take on an advocacy and lobbying role.

“That’s a good way to describe it,” Baldacci said. “The committee would organize efforts to meet with political leaders, the media and other community leaders and organizations to support and join this effort.”

The State Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has a Dec. 1 deadline for a final report on Dorothea Dix and its possible closure, but the report will likely be submitted by mid-December.

“It’s the start of an effort that will begin in January,” Baldacci explained.
“The legislative process will take two months, but we’ll need to be ready in January. They likely won’t make a final decision until March.”

The primary goal for the committee is to reinstate full funding for the center, which stands to lose nearly $7 million in state funding starting in 2013.

“The goal is to reverse the cuts, or at least keep the hospital open at a reduced level,” Baldacci said. “I think it will be difficult, but the bottom line is it’s the right issue and we’re fighting the right fight.”

The exact number of members on this committee is still to be determined, but it will include both medical and nonmedical professionals as well as people from both the civil and private sectors.

“We want input from all walks of life because whenever you turn people with illnesses out on the street untreated, you’re adding costs to everything: To police, fire, jails, everything,” said Councilor Pat Blanchette.

Closing the center would leave Maine with just one public psychiatric facility — Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.

Blanchette has a personal interest in keeping the facility open as her sister resided at the facility when it was known as Bangor Mental Health Institute.

“My poor sister probably should have been hospitalized from the time she was a young child, and there might have been some help for her, but the poor thing didn’t,” Blanchette said. “She was schizophrenic.”

Blanchette talked about walking into a living room one day to find her sister pointing a double-barreled shotgun at her, and another time when her sister came at her with a meat cleaver.

“Nobody wants to admit they have mental illness in their families, but it affects everybody,” she said.