(Photo by John Cook) From left to right: David DeVries, former director of the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget; Caro Mayor Joe Greene; former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder; former 31st District state Senator Mike Green; and Nick Lyon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services at a groundbreaking in Indianfields Township in October for a new state hospital that would replace the outdated Caro Center. The state announced this week that the project would be suspended.

A stunning decision: State contemplates pulling Caro Center hospital

The state of Michigan dropped a bomb Wednesday on Tuscola County.

The explosion came in the form of a notice from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon that the state was reevaluating its decision to build a $115 million state psychiatric hospital at the Caro Center in Indianfields Township. A consulting team is expected to review the plans and report back to state officials by the end of June.

The state, in announcing the reassessment, cited the city of Caro’s charge of $2.5 million for water service, staffing shortages, recruitment barriers, finding a permanent staff psychiatrist and the ability of families to be involved in treatment due to the location as reasons for the change.

Local representatives were surprised by the decision, but reacted quickly.

“I am concerned about reports that Gov. Whitmer’s administration is delaying construction – already underway – of the new psychiatric hospital in Caro,” U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) said in a statement. “Rural communities in the Thumb rely on facilities like this for both mental health care and jobs. In the coming days, I will speak more with local community leaders and will attempt to speak to Gov. Whitmer to seek an explanation for why her administration would make this financially irresponsible decision to delay construction.”

“I am disgusted at the blatant disregard for rural Michigan and Thumb residents,” state Rep. Phil Green (R-Millington) said in a statement. “The governor has shown that she is interested only in helping the residents of areas that were instrumental in electing her – repeatedly disenfranchising areas of the state that were not. She eliminated 250 potential jobs in Ionia and now hundreds of jobs at Caro. All Michigan residents deserve a governor who looks out for them, not just the ones who voted for her.”

State Sen. Kevin Daley (R-Lapeer) said the contractors are ready to start on the hospital as soon as the ground thaws so he was shocked when he learned, at 10 a.m. that day in a Senate session, that the decision had been made.

“They haven’t really given us any real straight answers,” he said. “I can’t help but think this was something that was planned.”

Local officials also were caught off guard by the announcement.

“We got blindsided by this,” said Indianfields Township Supervisor Ray Rendon.

Caro Mayor Joe Greene said he’s very concerned the state will pull the hospital from the area. He said he’d already heard from one real estate agent who said property values would be adversely affected if that happened. “He said if that all goes away the property values would drop in half, probably,” Greene said. “I don’t know if he was just blowing smoke or not. It would affect real estate values, yes.

“If they all have to move someplace else, there’s going to be a lot of houses on the market. It’s going to have a really drastic impact on our community.”

Tuscola County controller Mike Hoagland made an even more dire prediction.

“Our economy will collapse,” he said. “That’s 350 direct jobs out of here and another 400 indirect jobs, $54 million annually to the region and tell me how VGs and Rite Aid are going to fare then.”

Ground for the 200-bed, 225,000-square-foot facility, dubbed the Caro Psychiatric Hospital, was broken in October near M-81 and Chambers Road, but the project ran into some headwinds when it came to getting water to the Caro Center. The city said it could provide a water line the 1.9 miles to the site at a cost of $2.5 million. The city and Indianfields Township disagreed over who would benefit from any development that subsequently tapped into that water main. And the city didn’t want to foot the cost of the extension.

Tuscola County then stepped in and offered to look into using the existing water system of wells, pumps and a water tower at the Caro Center to serve the new development. And the state said it would pay to have the city extend a water line to the site.

“There is water for them to get,” Rendon said. “The biggest thing is who is going to supply it and how it is going to be paid for.”

Hoagland said the water issue had been solved. He said the existing wells, pumps and water system can serve the new hospital at a cost of just about $1 million. In addition, he said, that would allow for future development around the site by providing water to other businesses that might choose to locate nearby.

“We are ready to go,” Hoagland said. “We’re ready to issue bonds. We are ready to go to get the water system upgraded out there. But instead of a green light, this whole other edict comes down from the state.

“Will they accept that type of system? I don’t know. Or is that part of their excuses so they can relocate this to someplace else?”

Just this month the city of Caro also balked at taking over a proposed 4,000-foot sewer collection line to serve the new hospital and two homes nearby. Greene said that was based on the recommendation of the engineer, who said the city needed more information before reaching a decision. The city still is awaiting that information, he said.

Local officials are not waiting for the state to act, however. Daley said he’s working to bring state and local officials together for a meeting to discuss the issue. Greene said the city wants to meet with county commissioners and Indianfields Township “and start getting a game plan going.”

“They said they are going to hire an outside consultant (to review the feasibility of keeping the hospital in Caro),” he said, “and we have to have information ready to present to this consultant on this community’s reason why it should stay here.”

Hoagland said the county also will consider legal action. He said he’s been told the money for the hospital in the state budget was “site specific. It was an appropriation that was locked in. If it is an appropriation that was site specific in the budget can it even be changed? That’s something the legal beagles have to answer.”

Hoagland addressed the state’s access concern. He said the reason Caro was chosen as site for the hospital was its driving distance from four of the state’s major population centers – Metropolitan Detroit, Saginaw, Flint and Lansing – from which the majority  — Green said 80 percent of them — of the patients hail. And Daley addressed the concern about a full-time psychiatrist, calling it misleading. “That’s a problem anywhere in the state of Michigan,” he said.

Daley said he thinks the decision may have been made because DHHS officials “didn’t really want to keep this facility in Caro.” That, he added, coupled with the change in leadership from a Republican to Democrat governor and the change from Sen. Mike Green and Rep. Ned Canfield, who worked hard to get the new hospital for Caro, to first-timers Daley and Phil Green may have emboldened state officials to make this move.

But now, Daley said, he, Canfield and both Greens are involved.

“All four of us are working together, doing everything we can and doing whatever it is we need to do back here,” he said.

“I stand with the residents of Caro, Tuscola County and the Thumb region,” Phil Green said in his statement, “and I am committed to doing everything I can to fight the governor’s decision.”

Local officials, meanwhile, are concerned that a lot of investment in engineering, legal fees and other work on this project might go to waste.

“It has been quite an expense,” Rendon said, “not just for the township, but also for the city and the county. There’s a ton of money involved already in this locally.”

“The sad part is why all of this is being resurrected,” Hoagland said. “We are burning a lot of taxpayers’ money, time and energy over and over again on the same things that are being addressed again and again. It is preposterous. We’ve already been down these paths.”

While the state said it already has invested $3 million on the project, Daley said don’t think that means the hospital has to stay in Caro.

“The state of Michigan would walk away from $3 million in a heartbeat,” he said. “It is a shame, but people will do it to get what they want.”

For now, local officials are working to salvage the project. While the sessions will begin with just the local stakeholders, what happens after that depends on what the state does.

“If it keeps moving down the road (toward leaving),” Daley said, “they are going to owe some answers to the people eventually.”

The existing Caro Center opened in 1914 as the Caro Farm Colony for Epileptics, serving as the only state of Michigan residential treatment center for individuals with seizure disorders until 1997. The state still operates the Caro Center psychiatric hospital, one of Tuscola County’s bigger job providers and one of five such state-operated facilities in Michigan.

Mark Haney is a staff writer for The Advertiser and can be reached at haney@tcadvertiser.com.

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