LePage: Alternate site for new psychiatric unit could be announced next week

Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has zeroed in on a site to build a new facility for forensic psychiatric patients held in state custody. The governor said during a Thursday morning radio interview that he expects to identify the site early next week.

Though he did not disclose the location, LePage appears to be following through on his stated intention to choose a site outside Augusta after Democratic legislative leaders’ opposition stalled his plan to build the facility next to the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center on Augusta’s East Side. LePage previously said his administration is considering sites in Brunswick, Freeport, southern Maine and the Bangor area.

LePage said during an interview on WGAN radio that he was meeting with Department of Health and Human Services officials and others Thursday morning to discuss the new site, with hopes of picking one.

LePage said he told Democratic Speaker of the House Sara Gideon of Freeport on Wednesday that his administration is “moving on” and will find a site outside the authority of legislative leaders, who by law must approve state construction in the Capitol Area. Gideon and LePage met earlier this month on this issue and Gideon said she intends to put the proposal on a fast track through the legislative process. LePage doesn’t like that idea.

“She’s insisting on reopening the whole thing and I’m not going to do that,” said LePage. “The Maine people deserve better.”

Gideon said in a written statement Thursday that she and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau are pushing forward with a legislative review that is scheduled to begin in the first week of January.

“As I have been saying for weeks, we need to ensure the safety of patients, the workers who care for them and the public, and also that we are spending taxpayer dollars appropriately,” said Gideon. “I have been honoring that commitment and been engaging in conversations with members of [LePage’s] administration and Democratic and Republican lawmakers.”

The Legislative Council, a 10-member governing body made up of House and Senate leaders from both parties, has oversight of projects within the boundaries of the Capitol Complex, state-owned land in Augusta. Its votes not to allow the LePage administration to move forward with plans to build the forensic unit near Riverview, which is located within the Capitol Area, spurred LePage to seek alternative sites.

The Augusta Planning Board had previously approved plans for a forensic unit. The forensic unit in question would house patients who are put in state custody by the courts or Maine Department of Corrections but who don’t require hospital-level care. The unit is necessary as part of a plan to bring the state into compliance with federal rules and for Riverview to regain certification.

Though the LePage administration has tried various proposals in the Legislature to build this facility — which were rejected by lawmakers — this iteration has not been to a legislative committee. Among the top concerns among some lawmakers is that LePage intends to hire a private company that would lease the state’s facility and run the forensic unit. 

In other items discussed on WGAN this morning:

— LePage reiterated past concerns that he does not trust the validity of Maine’s voting system. He acknowledged that oversight of the state’s elections rests with Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat who has dismissed LePage’s assertions and stood by the election results. LePage said Thursday morning that he will encourage Dunlap to follow up on his concerns that people, mostly college students, who vote in Maine also abide by the state’s residency requirements for drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations.

— The governor said he will attend President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C.

Christopher Cousins

About 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.