AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s pledge to move a proposed mental health facility out of Augusta to bypass legislative approval triggered disappointment among lawmakers who said that wouldn’t be necessary if LePage’s administration would share its plans in public.

At issue is the LePage administration’s attempt to build a stand-alone facility for mentally ill patients who have been placed in the custody of the state by the Corrections Department or the courts but who do not require hospital-level care. The administration secured approval from the Augusta Planning Board in October but hit a roadblock last week when a committee of legislative leaders deadlocked on party lines, essentially blocking construction of the facility in Augusta.

“I’m looking for another location,” LePage said Tuesday during a radio appearance on WVOM. “They could only stop me on the East Campus [in Augusta]. Already I’m looking at Freeport right now. We’re looking up in the Bangor area. We’re looking down south. I’m going to get it, but it is just not going to be next to Riverview, so we won’t be able to use the same staff.”

Bangor and Freeport municipal representatives both said said Tuesday that the administration had not contacted them about the possibility of building a facility in their communities.

Lawmakers said in interviews Tuesday that LePage’s proposal could have merit, but they want to know more before they sign off.

“Is the proposal for a correctional facility or for a hospital?” said Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook, who is the Democrats’ long-standing point person on health and human services issues. “The idea of building a place for these patients to go next to Riverview seems appropriate. … At a conceptual level there’s not a lot of disagreement here, but it’s important that we have a full, public approval process.”

Gattine said aside from questions about how the facility will be funded — Department of Health and Human Services officials have said they can fund construction and first-year operations costs with between $3 million and $5 million of existing resources — lawmakers want oversight of patient care and the details of the private contract to run the facility. DHHS officials said last week at a meeting of the Legislative Council that they have spent dozens of hours answering questions about the proposal only to be met by opposition in the Legislature.

Daniel Wathen is the courtmaster over the state’s AMHI consent decree, which mandates how the state treats mental health patients, said he initially didn’t have details about the proposal but was fully briefed by DHHS officials before it was submitted to the Augusta Planning Board.

Wathen, a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice, said he’ll be watching the process closely but that where the facility is located isn’t of major concern in terms of the consent decree.

“I’m satisfied now that I know enough about it at this stage,” he said. “The next stage will be what are the performance measures and are they being met.”

Mark Joyce of Disability Rights Maine is one of the attorneys who represents the plaintiff class in the consent decree. He said his concerns range from staff-to-patient ratios in the facility to what regulations would be put into place for the use of seclusion and restraint.

“Those are the sorts of things I haven’t seen answered,” Joyce said. “Quite frankly, it might be a fine place in terms of a community facility. It’s just hard to give an opinion right now.”

Gattine and Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta refuted the claim about opposition in the Legislature and said though LePage has floated various plans for a forensic unit — including putting one at Maine State Prison in Warren — the privately run step-down facility in Augusta has never been presented to the Legislature in its current form.

“There is absolutely a need for the kind of facility the administration is talking about,” said Katz. “However, it’s hard to understand why the administration would want to go this alone and without collaboration from the Legislature. The Legislature’s job is to set policy.”

Katz said he has formally requested answers to a range of questions from the administration but that request has been ignored.

Mary Anne Turowski, director of politics and legislation for the Maine State Employees Association, which represents the majority of state workers, echoed concerns that the facility be vetted and approved in a public process. She said among the groups who need to weigh in are Riverview workers, with whom the union was meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss this issue.

“We need to have a public conversation,” she said. “No public facility in this state, no hospital on the public side, no health care facility has ever been built without input from the Legislature and the community and the public at large. The fact that the administration wants the Legislature to just give them a blank check on this is unconscionable.”

Gattine said he is working with other lawmakers to prepare a bill that would force the DHHS to run the proposal through the Legislature. Gattine submitted a bill in the waning days of the 127th Legislature that would have forced the state to develop and implement a plan for a step-down psychiatric facility. That proposal failed to garner support among enough legislative leaders to be introduced.

The state maintains contracts with hundreds of private vendors for everything from bridge maintenance to substance abuse counseling to running nursing homes. Many of those functions were privatized without legislative approval. Katz said this situation is different.

“We’re talking about a secure facility that has 14-foot walls with barbed wire at the top and people being put there against their will,” he said. “This needs legislative oversight.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.