Local News

Senate Tentatively Approves Building Of Mental Hospital In Butner

Posted June 19, 2003 3:47 a.m. EDT

— Despite the last-ditch pleas of legislators wanting to bring 1,200 state jobs to their districts, the state moved a step closer Thursday to building a psychiatric hospital in Butner to replace two older, outdated centers.

Senators from Wake and Chatham counties pleaded again with their colleagues to put the 430-bed hospital in one of their communities. Wake offers entry-level jobs and public transportation for outpatients, while Chatham is more centrally located within the region it would serve, they said.

"No longer do we treat mental health patients by taking them out to the middle of the big field and just letting them stay there," said Sen. Eric Reeves, D-Wake, before the Senate approved the bill 46-0. "Now they try to get back into society as quickly as possible."

Supporters say the site will lead to a savings because Butner is the only town administered by the state of North Carolina and already is home to several other state-run facilities. Some also say that Granville County needs the jobs more than Wake or Chatham.

"I couldn't agree more," Reeves said. "But making a decision of economics over patient care, putting economics in front of patient care, does not seem right to me."

The proposed $110 million hospital will replace the aging Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh and John Umstead Hospital in Butner. Renovating those hospitals would have cost $160 million.

The new hospital would be financed over 20 years with certificates of participation, which do not require voter approval.

Passage of the bill nearly stalled when Senate Republicans threatened to kill the legislation unless they could remove guidelines for using certificates of participation for other projects.

Rep. Fern Shubert, R-Union, said she worried that the bill would the allow the state to sell up to $250 million of bonds for repair and renovation projects without having to put the issues before voters. Democrats countered that they were only trying to clearly establish the bond procedure and that any future projects would require legislative approval.

"If it were just dealing with the hospital, as important as this project is, I probably wouldn't have said much," Shubert said. "(But) it opens the door to a whole new category of borrowing."

Sen. Wib Gulley, D-Durham, first objected to the amendment but agreed to support it after a brief recess.

"The short of it is that I don't want to try and do something divisive about something as important as this hospital," he said.

The bill returns to the Senate on Monday night for a final reading. If it's approved, the House will have to reconsider the bill because of the amendment.