Legislators mull plans for Fulton hospital

Plans for a new mental health facility at the Fulton State Hospital campus are moving forward, though details about paying for it must be worked out as Missouri lawmakers face an approaching deadline.

Officials could back the issuance of bonds but must decide how to issue them and how quickly to pay them off. Lawmakers are required to approve a budget by 6 p.m. Friday covering the fiscal year that starts July 1. The deadline for passing non-budget bills is May 16.

“We know there are more than several ways to skin a cat and get legislation passed,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood. “We like to keep all options on the table and move three or four balls down the field and hopefully one of them will cross the finish line.”

The Fulton State Hospital is Missouri’s only maximum-security psychiatric facility and is the oldest public mental health facility west of the Mississippi River. Patients include those committed by the courts for evaluation and treatment and people found not guilty or unable to stand trial because of mental disease.

Among the facilities at the hospital are the maximum-security Biggs Forensic Center, the intermediate-security Guhleman Forensic Center and the Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services unit.

Officials have proposed demolishing Biggs and several other buildings and constructing a new 300-bed high-security facility to house patients from Biggs and Guhleman. That would free beds for Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services.

The project is estimated to cost $211 million. The current year’s budget has $13 million for design work, and bonding could be used to finance the remainder.

An important decision is how long to spend paying off the bonds. A longer repayment schedule would require devoting less money annually to bond payments that otherwise could go to schools, higher education and social services. However, that would increase overall interest costs. A shorter repayment schedule would reduce interest payments but tie up more state funds on the hospital project during that period.

In addition to financial calculations, officials must consider legislative concerns in winning final approval for a plan.

Three possibilities for the Fulton project are:

• Issue bonds through the Missouri Development Finance Board to be paid off over 25 years. That follows Gov. Jay Nixon’s proposal, and the Senate included $14.2 million in its version of the state’s operating budget so that it would remain an option. Lawmakers in the House and Senate are meeting to develop a final state spending plan.

• Issue bonds through the Missouri Development Finance Board to be paid off in five years. The House passed a separate capital budget measure last week with $44 million for bonding. The bill would need approval from the Senate.

• Permit the State Board of Public Buildings to issue additional bonds, including for the Fulton hospital. Legislation has passed the Senate but would need approval in the House.

Legislators say the options have advantages and disadvantages.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer said his main concern is finding an option with the most certainty of ensuring the facility is built.

“I think we will come to some resolution. I think it’s just a little bit too early to know which one of those three options we’ll use,” said Schaefer, R-Columbia. “But I would say it’s a very high probability that we come to agreement and get that built.”

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