Time to Stop Kicking the Can

The hypocrisy of General Assembly members is astounding sometimes.  They complain about vexing problems, but create obstacles to fixing those problems.

Governor Northam included funding in his proposed budget to begin detailed architectural and engineering planning for replacing Central State Hospital in Petersburg, one of the state’s major mental health hospitals.  There is a consensus that the facility is badly outmoded and needs replacing.

The General Assembly cut the planning money, but said that it was open to a different  approach if the Governor were to propose one  for the reconvened session.  The Governor has announced that he will be proposing a slightly different project.

The main reason given by the General Assembly for cutting the planning money was that the proposed project was going to take too long (seven years to plan and complete construction).  That complaint is worth examining:

  1. The executive branch has been asking for authorization to proceed on the project since 2014. In 2018, the General Assembly directed the administration to develop a “plan to provide capital project options for a new Central State Hospital”, which would include phasing options.  The administration delivered a 403-page report in December 2018.  The report recommended a comprehensive approach, rather than building the replacement in multiple phases.  Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said the construction schedule would slip and the costs would increase if the project were phased in.  The 2019 General Assembly was not satisfied.  Leaders said they wanted the project “expedited” and told the administration to conduct another study.  It is hard to understand how waiting another year for another study would “expedite” the project.
  2. Projects as complex as this one take a long time. The replacement of the General Assembly Building was authorized in 2014.  Five years later, the site consists of a big hole in the ground and the original façade standing alone.  The General Assembly will remain in its temporary headquarters for another 2 or 3 years.
  3. The General Assembly could have put the project on a faster track if it had wanted to. Simply put, the capital process for major projects consists of (i) detailed planning which produces preliminary A&E documents that can provide the basis for projecting the cost and (ii) production of final drawings and actual construction.  These projects can be authorized to proceed in separate steps or the authorization can be consolidated.  If they are authorized in separate steps, the legislature can have a good idea of the total cost before authorizing construction to begin.  If the General Assembly authorizes a project to proceed to construction without waiting to see the detailed planning estimate, the project can be completed in a shorter time.  Governor Northam is now proposing this approach.  Based on preliminary press reports, this seems acceptable to the legislature.  Although House Speaker Kirk Cox called Central State “the linchpin of our behavioral health system”, if the project had really been that important to the legislature, it could have authorized construction, rather than cutting the planning authorization and doing nothing further.

The real obstacle for the legislature was evidently the projected cost of $385.1 million, when they had over $300 million in higher ed capital projects, in addition to the Amazon deal, they wanted to authorize.  As Del. Chris Jones, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, put it, “That, by far, was the largest project.”  To appease the General Assembly in this regard, Northam’s revised proposal carries a projected price tag of $315 million.  However, to get to that figure, he decreased the bed capacity of the new facility by 16 percent. He is also proposing to study whether the 111-bed maximum security forensic unit should be located at a different site.   It is not clear how such a move would affect the timing and cost of the project.

So, after years of kicking this can down the road, the members of the General Assembly pat themselves on the back for getting the Governor to “expedite” the project.

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5 responses to “Time to Stop Kicking the Can

  1. “…when they had over $300 million in higher ed capital projects, in addition to the Amazon deal, they wanted to authorize.” And the (LED, of course) light bulb comes on! Compare the political constituencies, the political rewards, on these three: a hospital for the indigent mentally ill, fat grants for a world’s richest man and owner of the dominant newspaper, and shiny new buildings on universities campuses. Hell, that decision didn’t even rise to the level of being conscious.

    Thanks for the background.

  2. There are many activities the state engages in that it shouldn’t. But maintaining a facility of last resort for the mentally ill has long been considered a core function of state government. If there is nowhere else to deal with the hard cases, where else do they go? Can our mental health system accommodate them? How many end up homeless? How many end up committing crimes?

    • Many of them do commit crimes, primarily minor, “nuisance” type crimes and end up in jails. That has become a major problem–a subject of a post I have in mind for the future.

  3. While many things have changed, Minnesota’s mental health hospitals used to be largely self-sustaining, at least for non-medical costs. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, my grandfather was chief engineer (stationary) at the then brand-new Moose Lake State Hospital. The hospital ran a large farm for food. Patients were assigned work based their physical and mental conditions. While many patients worked on the farm, other worked in and around the hospital.

    Patients performed custodial services, worked in the kitchen and laundry. My grandfather said that a few worked for him on various projects in and around the boiler room.

    Today, I suspect legislators and constitutional officers get campaign contributions from the labor unions and contractors performing these tasks. Not all change is good.

  4. In terms of infrastructure – Mr. Layne knows from his stint at VDOT that building projects in phases – almost never results in lower costs and almost always results in higher costs.

    On top of that, when you keep putting off something that should have been done a long time ago – it costs more also.

    I would also expect the folks at planning and budget to know that essential truth also.

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