The psychiatric step-down facility on the campus of Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre

Gov. Janet Mills hasn’t committed to opening a new, 16-bed state psychiatric facility in Bangor that’s about three-and-a-half months away from completion. But as key lawmakers continue to call for the facility to be located in Augusta, newly released documents from the state show that former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration essentially cut off Mills’ power to change course.

A lease the LePage administration signed last May with the development company that’s building the secure facility on the campus of Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor obligates the state to $11.3 million in lease payments over 30 years for a building the LePage administration estimated would cost between $2 million and $3 million.

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What’s more, the agreement specifically bars the state from terminating the lease so it can open a similar facility elsewhere, such as in Augusta — a provision that a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice and court-appointed watchdog over Maine’s mental health services called unusual in state leases.

“I’ve never seen that particular clause,” said Dan Wathen, the former Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice who is the court-appointed watchdog for Maine’s mental health system.

And even if the state came up with a different use for the Bangor building so it could open a secure psychiatric facility in Augusta — closer to the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center, from which it would take in patients — its options would still be limited: The lease requires that the state use the Bangor building as a residential care facility licensed for at least seven residents.

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The new documents released by the state break down for the first time how LePage negotiated the construction and lease of a privately owned state psychiatric facility that he and lawmakers fought over for years — and which LePage’s administration pursued largely beyond public view.

“It seems to me we have a hornet’s nest,” said state Sen. Geoff Gratwick, a Bangor Democrat who has favored locating the psychiatric facility in Augusta so patients can continue seeing the same care providers to whom they’ve become accustomed during their time at Riverview.

Final arrangements

While the LePage administration and lawmakers talked about opening a secure psychiatric step-down facility for years as a way to help Riverview Psychiatric Center regain the federal certification it lost in 2013, the final arrangements for the Bangor facility only came together in LePage’s last year in office.

In May 2018, the LePage administration sold almost three state-owned acres on the Dorothea Dix campus to a Hermon development company owned by Thomas Ellis.

The same month, the two parties signed the lease under which Ellis agreed to build a 9,500-square-foot facility, then lease it back to the state for 30 years, according to documents provided by the state Department of Administration and Financial Services.

Construction of the 16-bed facility on State Hospital Drive started last summer and is expected to finish by the middle of May.

‘All possible options’

Last month, the single-story building had a roof and walls that were wrapped in reflective insulation, but still no windows. It had the look of a stretched-out, ranch-style home, hidden from the main roads that pass through that section of Bangor and dwarfed by the old brick buildings that stand nearby on the Dorothea Dix campus.

After buying those 2.69 acres from the state for $60,000 and negotiating the 30-year lease with the state, Ellis Commercial Development was responsible for the costs of designing and building the facility, and ensuring it’s ready to use as a secure psychiatric facility by May 19.

It was not clear exactly how much the project will cost the company. Thomas Ellis did not respond to a phone call or emails seeking information. An interim spokesman for the state Department of Administration and Financial Services, Dick Thompson, said the state has no record of those costs.

However, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services previously estimated the project would cost between $2 million and $3 million, according to a legislative financial document from 2017. Also, Ellis Commercial Development recently took out a $3.45 million mortgage on the property, records at the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds show.

Long-term, Ellis Commercial Development will have to pay property taxes to the city of Bangor; the cost of building repairs, maintenance and improvements; and bills for any insurance.

The state will have to cover all heating, water and other utilities, according to the lease. Beyond any building-associated costs, it will pay to run the facility and provide patient services.

Credit: Callie Ferguson

Two other developers, Cianbro and Ouelett Construction, also bid for the Bangor project, according to state records. The state initially negotiated with Cianbro to do the work but could not agree on a lease rate, according to Thompson.

Mills and her representatives have made few public remarks about what they plan for the psychiatric facility, which is meant to house so-called “forensic patients” who have been found not criminally responsible for crimes they have committed or have been deemed unfit for trial, but who no longer need the restrictive, hospital level of care provided at Riverview Psychiatric Center.  

Before a recent Bangor event, Mills said her staff is still reviewing the agreements the LePage administration negotiated.

“I have not looked at the contracts myself,” Mills said. “People in the office are looking at the contracts and are looking at all possible options.”

Mills’ staff also hasn’t made a decision about whether to go forward with another contract that the LePage administration negotiated with Correct Care Recovery Solutions, a Tennessee contractor that submitted a bid to the state to operate the forensic unit.

A member of the LePage administration signed that contract, but in the weeks before Mills was sworn in as governor, she successfully requested that Correct Care not sign it.

[Tennessee company didn’t sign contract to run Bangor psychiatric facility at Mills’ request]

Mills took that step amid uncertainty over how to pay Correct Care. In December, Wathen, the court-appointed mental health care watchdog, said a LePage administration proposal to pay for the contract with about $5.4 million in state money earmarked for local mental health services violated the decades-old court order that Wathen monitors.

“Governor Mills has previously expressed concerns about the LePage Administration’s pursuit of the proposed step-down facility in Bangor,” Mills spokesman Scott Ogden wrote in an email. “Now the administration is reviewing the contract negotiated by the LePage administration, continuing discussions with Correct Care, and conducting a thorough evaluation of all aspects of the facility to determine in the coming weeks and months the best path forward.”

Avoiding the Legislature

During Mills’ tenure as the state’s attorney general, she argued on multiple occasions that the LePage administration needed the Legislature’s approval to build the facility on state property, whether in Augusta or Bangor. LePage never received that approval.

[AG: LePage needs legislative approval to build mental health unit]

Lawmakers from both parties have long agreed that such a facility is needed. But a first effort to gain legislative approval for it fell short early in 2016 amid concerns that the project wasn’t fully vetted.

The LePage administration then started pursuing construction in Augusta without the Legislature’s approval, proposing to use existing sources of Department of Health and Human Services funding. But Democratic legislative leaders quashed that plan late in 2016, citing a law that requires the Legislative Council — made up of 10 legislative leaders of both parties — to sign off on any construction in Augusta’s Capitol Area development zone.

So the governor found a way to continue the project without legislative approval: by moving it to a state-owned parcel on Hogan Road in Bangor, well outside of Augusta. But LePage’s plan ran into more trouble. Mills issued a memo in January 2017 saying the facility needed legislative approval to be built on state-owned land in Augusta or Bangor.

The administration changed plans again in response, proposing to sell the state land to a private developer who would lease the facility back to the state for 30 years. It changed plans again after the Bangor City Council barred the facility from opening anywhere but on the Dorothea Dix campus.

Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

In May 2018, the state sold the 2.69 acres to Ellis Commercial Development.

[Bangor limits where LePage can build psychiatric facility]

All along, the LePage administration insisted that Democrats in the Legislature were resisting the project and that it was moving the project to Bangor to escape partisan bickering.

Seeking transparency

Now, advocates for the people who would be served by the step-down facility hope Mills will shine some light on a project that stayed in the dark during LePage’s time in office.

Kevin Voydovich, an attorney with the group Disability Rights Maine who represents the plaintiffs in a decades-old class-action lawsuit against the state over the quality of its psychiatric care, said last week that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the Bangor facility because he doesn’t know them.

“We currently don’t know what direction the state is going in with this facility or any kind of planning with it,” Voydovich said. “Our hope at this point with the new administration is that they will involve us with any discussions going forward with this facility or what direction it will take.”

Regardless of how construction progresses in the coming weeks in Bangor, a proposal to move the psychiatric facility to Augusta will have its day before the state Legislature.

Under LD 284, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook, the facility would be located in Augusta, it would be run by the state and an advisory committee would oversee its operations. A similar bill, LD 162, passed the Legislature in 2017 but couldn’t overcome a veto from LePage.

Gattine — who often pressed the LePage administration for details on the proposed step-down facility — said he wasn’t familiar with the terms of the lease agreement with Ellis Commercial Development and didn’t know about the requirement that the state pay $11.3 million to the developer over 30 years.

“This is far more expensive than they originally speculated it was going to cost,” Gattine said. “The problem is that, for the last two years there’s been a total lack of transparency from Maine DHHS. Now, we’re kind of learning about these things in dribs and drabs.”