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Ready to rally? Support sought for Tuesday’s Caro Center event at state capitol

For Kevin Daley, Tuesday’s rally at the state capitol is crucial.

The Lapeer County Republican state senator thinks it is vital for a good crowd to show up in Lansing in support of continuing construction of a $115 million, 200-bed state psychiatric hospital at Chambers Road and M-81 in Indianfields Township.

The state already has spent just under $4 million on replacing the 150-bed Caro Center in Wahjamega, but all of that ended in March when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer halted construction and paid for a $277,000 review of the 2017 decision to build the state’s newest psychiatric hospital on 650 state-owned acres in Tuscola County. That study, done by Myers and Stauffer accountants from Owings Mills, Maryland, offered the state four options, three of which continued construction at Wahjamega. The governor and state Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon came up with an entirely different choice – shrinking the Caro Center to 85 beds and renovating or rebuilding the facility. That included a promise the jobs are going to stay.

“What they don’t say is where the jobs are going to stay at,” said Daley. “You can get away with saying the jobs are going to stay, not necessarily here, but the jobs are going to stay. But it doesn’t make sense to say you are going to keep the staff the same and cut the bed size down to 85. That isn’t a very good use of our tax dollars either.”

Since Whitmer stopped work in March, citing 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 her reasons, Tuscola County officials have been funding efforts by two consulting firms – Capitol Services and KC Communications Consultants, both of Lansing – to secure continued construction of the state hospital and to preserve the estimated 400 jobs there.

The next step in the process is the 10:30 a.m.-to-1 p.m. rally on the steps of the state capitol.

“It has gotten to the point now where what we need from the district out here is that support for the rally,” Daley said at Thursday’s county Board of Commissioners’ meeting, “because it is really getting down to negotiations between the governor and the Legislature. But we still don’t want that support to go away.”

Daley said his office is going to send out letters to the counties he represents, asking that each send people to the rally. He also suggested the county send letters to those who have shown support for the Caro Center, asking them to send someone to the rally.

“We (the Legislature) are planning on being in session (on Aug. 27),” he said, “but that is kind of iffy. We are scheduled right now to be in session.”

“I think transportation is going to be an issue,” District 3 commissioner Kim Vaughan said.

Vaughan, who represents Dayton, Fremont, Indianfields, Koylton and Wells townships, said he has contacted private bus companies and the cost is about $700 for a 45-passenger bus, $800 for a 64-passenger ride. He said he’s planning on sponsoring a bus or two but was hoping others would step up and do the same.

Are we going to get donations?” said county controller/administrator Clayette Zechmeister. “Are we going to get sponsors?”

“I really don’t know,” said Vaughan. “All I really am saying is, if this is the route we want to take” he’ll work with the vendor to line up buses. He also said they need to designate a central rallying point and time for people to meet who want to go and need a ride.

District 4 commissioner Mark Jensen asked if anyone had contacted the union leaders at the Caro Center to see if they have plans to get people to the rally or if they are waiting for the county to organize something.

Zechmeister said she will be contacting local firms to try to get signs for people to carry at the rally.

All of this will be done with private funds, and not with county cash.

Daley said the effort to continue building the hospital was helped when the county submitted paperwork removing water as an issue with the new construction – the county will update the existing water system at the Caro Center for $1 million.

“If they can change the scope of the capital outlay,” he said, “if they can find something like water or drainage, some reason why they shouldn’t build that facility there, then they have an argument to come back with. The water was a big one for them.”

He said the location and ability of family to visit are just red herrings.

“So wherever these patients come from, they’d like them in a facility near to their home zip code. They are trying to use that as an excuse,” Daley said. “Everybody knows that an awful lot of the people housed in these facilities never go back home anyway. The families don’t want anything to do with them, unfortunately, because of things that have happened in the past.

“So there aren’t very many visitors.”

Daley said there is another motivation for the construction delay.

“I do know there are some people at the DHHS who do not like the (existing) model and want to shut down every state hospital,” he said, “and that all of the people in these hospitals should be mainstreamed to community homes and stuff like that.”

But since former Gov. John Engler started closing state hospitals back in the 1980s, Daley said, “the major proportion of the people already have been mainstreamed into the communities. There were people in those facilities who shouldn’t have been there, but we are far beyond that now.”

What’s left in state hospitals, he said, are people “I wouldn’t want living anywhere near my house. That is not being mean, that is just a fact. These are some very sick people.”

Negotiations between the Legislature and the governor over the 2019-20 budget may have the final say on the fate of the Caro Center – the Legislature’s budget for DHHS mandates building the hospital in Indianfields Township while the governor’s proposal does not. The budget must be approved by the Oct. 1 start of a new fiscal year.

“The bottom line is the money has to come through the Legislature,” Daley said. “In order to do that, you have to come to us.”

County officials aren’t sure the battle will be over by Oct. 1. They approved a new month-by-month contract with KC Communications Consultants, but balked at a December drop-dead date proposed by District 5 commissioner Dan Grimshaw, who represents the city of Vassar and Denmark, Vassar and Juniata townships.

“With a four-month ending we’d have to act on it,” said Jensen, who represents Arbela, Millington, Tuscola and Watertown townships, “but I am not as optimistic as (District 2 commissioner Thomas) Bardwell that this is going to be over in four months. I would like to be.”

“Well, let me say this,” said Bardwell, who represents the city of Caro and Almer, Ellington, Kingston and Novesta townships.“If that is not the case then it is a poor example of our current leadership in government.”

Daley said he believes it will be over by the end of the year. “But,” Jensen said, “we thought that a year ago.”

The Caro Center is one of five state psychiatric facilities. The Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ann Arbor, the Hawthorn Center in Northville, the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital and the Walter Reuther Psychiatric Hospital in Westland are the others.

The Caro Center’s roots go back to 1914, when the state opened the Caro Farm Colony for Epileptics. It then served as the only state residential treatment center for individuals with seizure disorders until 1997. It was one of 16 state asylums operated in Michigan since 1850. Starting in the late 1980s, the state began to close many of them, including facilities in Traverse City, Newberry, Ionia, Kalamazoo, Northville, Pontiac, Lapeer and Ypsilanti.

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

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