The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 16, 2013

State hospital sells its building request to visiting senators

Goal: Reduce patients' stay at Security Hospital

By Dan Linehan
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Atop the hill in the Regional Treatment Center, the head nurse at the Minnesota Security Hospital turns to an emotional appeal for the hospital’s big request.

“This is not something they acquired,” Nursing Director Colleen Ryan says of the hospital’s 375 or so patients. “This is a physical illness.”

The Senate Capital Investment Committee was ending its tour of this state-run hospital for the mentally ill and dangerous. At the Regional Treatment Center, set on 400 acres on the south side of St. Peter, deer seem unafraid of visitors and turkeys roam the grounds. The campus includes the hospital and, below the hill and mostly separated by razor wire, the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

The legislators stopped by one of the hospital’s living units (the residents were out to lunch) and heard about how the $56.3 million request would change this room, and others like it.

Though the glass-covered security room was clearly designed to look out on the living space, there are areas a guard can’t see, including the bedroom doors. The group also heard about how the appropriation would help the state accomplish its long term goal of putting the entire security hospital program atop the hill and leave the valley to the Sex Offender Program.

But the nursing director put her final appeal in terms of what the money would do for the security hospital’s patients. Mostly, it will help them leave. Their average length of stay is eight years, and reducing that number is a major goal.

To that end, the renovations would create two 20-bed housing units for the sickest patients, to help both them and other patients recover more quickly. The request also includes money to add social, recreational and vocational amenities.

That’s where Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, thinks the emphasis should be: “The needs of the patients come first.”

The situation at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is far different; they are preparing for an ever-increasing population instead of a declining one. After all, about 50 people enter the program every year and only one person has been released.

The tour group didn’t make it inside the razor wire, but was given a look inside one wing of a 23-bed facility called Green Acres. Twelve men live in this “re-integration” building, which is something of a halfway house between the secure buildings and life on the outside. It looks like a typical group home, with its earth-tone walls, paintings of natural scenes and aquariums with fiddler crabs.

The sex offender program is the only place in the country where sex offenders live in secure and group home-type facilities on the same campus, said Nancy Johnston, the program’s executive director. Like about 20 other states, Minnesota has a civil commitment process that can detain people who have completed their criminal sentences.

The Department of Human Services is asking the Legislature for $7.4 million next year for the sex offenders, mostly to remodel part of “Green Acres” and another building, called “Sunrise.” The changes would add about 60 beds to the program. In 2016, DHS plans to ask the Legislature for $14.1 million to remodel a nearby building now occupied by the Security Hospital. By then, its patients will have hopefully moved up the hill to the main hospital.

The committee also visited Minnesota State University, where it heard a pitch from the College of Allied Health and Nursing for state help to build a $25.8 million clinical sciences building.

South Central College is looking for $7.4 million to remodel about a third of its North Mankato campus. The change would consolidate the agricultural, engineering and health care programs. It would help about 1,300 students.

The project would also replace some of the building’s heating and air conditioning units.

“Every year, we say a few prayers before the heating system has to start or the cooling system has to start,” Karen Snorek, vice president of finance and facilities, said.

Next up was the Minnesota River Trail, which now exists only on paper but eventually may stretch from Big Stone Lake, the headwaters of the Minnesota River, to Le Sueur. For now, the focus is on a potential trail between Mankato and St. Peter, but the project isn’t yet ready to move to the land-acquisition phase.

Also requesting state funding is the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Authority, which is seeking $15 million to renovate 25 miles of century-old track between Winthrop and Fairfax. The project would allow for quicker shipments, mostly of agricultural products, and help move freight from highways to tracks.

The tour group ended its long day with visits to Mankato’s Verizon Wireless Center and the Rapidan Dam. The city wants $14.5 million to expand the civic center and Blue Earth County wants $2.3 million in improvements to the Rapidan Dam.

The state Senate now has about $4 billion in requests, and though Democrats and Republicans will probably disagree about the size of the bill, only perhaps one dollar in four will get funded.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said the civic centers will likely be a part of an eventual bill, called a bonding bill. Senjem suggested $800 million would be a reasonable size, though there “might be kickback” if Gov. Mark Dayton comes in with a higher number. The governor has suggested a bill sized at about $1 billion.