The Hennepin County Board's key mental health initiative — to create secure psychiatric beds at the county's adult correctional facility in Plymouth — has been put on hold.

The board approved $200,000 last summer to study the feasibility of converting an abandoned building at the facility, better known as the county workhouse, for residents or inmates unable to find a secure bed at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, ready to leave the county jail or being kept temporarily at HCMC.

The board had earmarked nearly $13 million for the Mental Health Stabilization Center. But this month the board was told that the configuration of the vacant building would make the project too expensive, said Commissioner Mike Opat. The building also didn't offer good sightlines for monitoring residents, he said.

"The project has been put on pause right now," Opat said. "Because of the general condition of the facility and how it's laid out, our original plan isn't going to be compatible."

County Administrator David Hough said although the estimated cost of building the center at the workhouse was a little more than he expected, the facility was still in the mix. He has met with the architect firm that evaluated the workhouse and is asking the county's facility services staff to come up with options and recommendations.

"This is still a priority for us," he said. "The workhouse is still a potential solution, but we aren't wedded to it."

Plans for the new facility have been discussed by the board for more than a year and a half. The concept was first pitched by former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek as part of a five-point comprehensive plan to help those dealing with mental illness.

It focused on the long-shuttered work-release building on the workhouse site, a 1970s-era building that once housed 165 inmates. It was originally thought that a large portion of the $13 million budget would go toward updating the building's plumbing, heating and air conditioning.

County and law enforcement officials long have battled with the state Department of Human Services over improving the placement system for the mentally ill and with capacity issues at the Anoka treatment center. Some inmates outlast their sentencing time in jail while waiting for a bed to open at Anoka. People placed at HCMC may pose risks to themselves and staffers because the hospital wasn't designed to be a secure mental health facility.

Stanek estimated that, on any given day, more than one-third of the inmates at the county jail in downtown Minneapolis have mental health issues or require treatment.

Proceeding despite obstacles

Opat said the need for a new facility is undeniable and that the board is eager to get it done.

"But if the workhouse doesn't work out, it doesn't work out," he said. "You can't go in with a bad or unsafe design. This is all a little frustrating."

The state passed a law in 2013 giving jail inmates priority for admission into state psychiatric facilities. If the new facility is larger than 16 beds, which is expected, it must be affiliated with a hospital.

Hennepin County is working with community organizations and Hennepin Healthcare on a multiyear project to create a mental health and substance abuse residential treatment program at a county-owned building at 1800 Chicago Av. S. in Minneapolis. It will work as a triage center, treating a patient's immediate health needs and then dealing with the underlying causes for the health issues.

Like Stanek, new Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson said he believes a secure mental health facility is critically important. The downtown jail lacks the resources to deal with the volume of people winding up there who suffer from mental health issues, he said.

"We want to make sure that mental health is being treated as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice problem, and that means having the proper kind of facility," Hutchinson said. "We intend to continue pursuing this project and are actively developing other programs to address mental health needs, such as a co-responder program that will pair mental health experts with deputies when mental health is suspected as a factor in an incident."

Opat said the county will continue its search for a secure facility. "We are not going to stop until we have an answer," he said.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465