Minnesota state facilities that treat thousands of people with psychiatric problems and other disabilities are falling into disrepair and require tens of millions of dollars in upgrades after years of neglect and underfunding, state officials said Friday.
The situation has reached a crisis point, officials said, with heating systems, roofs and other critical infrastructure failing at several large treatment centers. The administration of Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking $63.4 million to repair the facilities as part of its proposed $1.5 billion public works bonding bill.
Acting Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson called attention to the urgency of the issue Friday during a tour of the sprawling St. Peter campus that’s home to the Minnesota Security Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric facility, as well as the state sex offender treatment program.
Johnson pointed to an aging kitchen that serves 2,000 meals a day, but where cooking equipment is outdated and ventilation is so poor that temperatures can exceed 110 degrees in the summer, making it virtually unbearable for workers. In an aging brick building that once housed sex offenders, there were empty rooms with broken light fixtures, 50-year-old pipes wrapped in asbestos, and prisonlike corridors with fluorescent lighting and chipped paint.
“This looks and feels like a sanitarium from a long time ago … and not a place where you can really expect to improve people’s condition,” Johnson said, as he stood inside a cell-like room with a small window on the door.
About 20 percent of the space in Minnesota’s nearly 200 state-operated treatment facilities, including group homes and psychiatric hospitals, are classified as being in “poor or crisis condition” by the Minnesota Department of Administration. If funding is not approved, Johnson said, then DHS will be forced to dip into its operating budget to make the improvements, which means less money for direct care and treatment.
“We just can’t afford to put off basic improvements any longer,” Johnson said. “Every year that you put off the work, not only do the problems get worse but the cost goes way up.”
The Department of Human Services, the state’s largest agency, has a long menu of proposed renovation projects, including $18.6 million to address urgent maintenance problems. This includes replacing roofs, windows, doors and exterior walls; as well as upgrading heating, ventilation, and plumbing at facilities across the state. All told, these facilities house and treat about 12,000 people with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities, chemical dependency problems and other disorders.
The agency has received no infrastructure funding through state bonding bills since 2014; but even when funding was approved, the amounts were not adequate to keep up with maintenance needs and physical decline of the buildings, officials said.
The impact can be seen throughout the state campus in St. Paul. At the large kitchen, the absence of central air conditioning in the summer has meant workers drink jugs of ice water while they clean dishes, and take frequent breaks outside to escape the oppressive heat. In recent summers, workers have hauled in fans and a giant portable air conditioner to cool the kitchen, but the heat can still be “unbearable,” said Scott Reed, the kitchen supervisor. “It’s so hot and humid, the walls sweat with moisture,” he said.
Still, the bonding request from DHS is almost certain to attract close scrutiny from state lawmakers, who have shown more interest in recent years in funding community-based programs rather than buildings. Legislators have, for instance, turned down requests to build new facilities in St. Peter for sex offenders in the final stages of treatment. That program, known as Community Preparation Services, now has a long waiting list because there are not enough beds to house the growing number of offenders moving through treatment.
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Senate Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, said some of the projects in the DHS bonding proposal have merit. But he questioned why the agency had not sounded the alarm earlier about conditions at state-operated facilities. No one at the agency had briefed him on the problems, or even mentioned them in passing, he said.
“If they were so important, I believe DHS would have been working with all committee members all session long to promote the need and necessity,” he said.
Apart from St. Peter, DHS is seeking $12.5 million to upgrade the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, a 110-bed psychiatric hospital for patients with complex mental health conditions. The roofs on the patient care units are at the end of their life spans, and have been leaking for several years; and water is also leaking into the facility’s mechanical rooms because of poor insulation, officials said.
The funding would go toward fixing these maintenance problems, but would also be used to improve safety by creating a new crisis unit for patients who become disruptive, among other improvements, officials said.
A large chunk of the DHS proposal — $16.19 million — would go to remodel three buildings on the St. Peter campus for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Under court pressure, a record number of offenders are moving to the final stages of treatment and closer to release. The campus, however, lacks adequate space to house them, which means about 30 offenders are on a waiting list for admission to less-restrictive facilities on the campus.
“Across the spectrum, we have neglected our facilities, and now we’re paying the price and scrambling to catch up,” said Rep. Jack Considine Jr., DFL-Mankato, a member of the Health and Human Services Finance Committee.