The state Senate Saturday voted overwhelmingly for a bill to close the state home for the developmentally disabled at Boulder and send most or all of its 50 residents to community-based programs within two years.
“Are we going to continue to spend millions of dollars on an institution that has shown it cannot keep people safe?” asked Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, the sponsor of the bill. “Let’s put a stop to this colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Senators voted 42-8 for Senate Bill 411, which goes to the House after a final Senate vote Monday.
SB411 directs the state to close the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder by July 2017 and move all but 12 of its residents to community-based programs by Dec. 31, 2016.
It also would create a “transition planning committee” to advise and help the state Department of Public Health and Human Services design a closure plan. The 15-member panel would have four legislators and 11 members appointed by the governor.
MDC, whose residents have developmental disabilities and sometimes also mental illnesses, has been in Boulder for more than 120 years. The institution housed hundreds of residents until the 1970s, when the move toward “deinstitutionalization” of state facilities for the mentally disabled and ill began.
Now, MDC houses 50 people who are sent there by court order. It employs 250 people, the bulk of whom live in Boulder, Butte and Helena, and spends about $270,000 per resident per year. Caferro said that cost is scheduled to increase next year to $310,000 per resident per year.
Supporters of the bill said the center has shown it can’t keep its residents safe, with repeated reports of abuse, including sexual assault, and has had ample time to fix the problems, but hasn’t done it.
Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, noted that the center has had 18 incidents of substantiated abuse against residents so far this year.
“Any (private) provider who provides services to this population would not be in business, if you had 18 incidents in this calendar year,” he said.
Two Republicans and six Democrats voted against the closure, including Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, whose district includes Boulder.
Keane said the people sent to Boulder are “the toughest cases that even the people at (the state mental hospital at) Warm Springs don’t want,” and that it is still needed.
“We have an important responsibility to take care of everyone,” he said. “To just close a facility that for years has taken the toughest cases is just not a responsible thing to do as a Legislature.”
Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, who also voted against the bill, said if MDC is closed, people who are sent there will end up instead in jails, prison or the State Hospital at Warm Springs, which aren’t good options for the developmentally disabled.
Yet Caferro said the bill allows for MDC’s secure forensic facility to remain open, if the committee and the state decide it’s needed, as a community-based facility to house up to 12 people.
The rest of MDC’s population, or perhaps all of it, can be moved successfully to community-based programs run by private nonprofit entities, she said, and those programs have said they can take most of MDC’s residents.
“I say we can’t afford to wait,” she said. “It’s too soon (to act)? I say it’s too late.”