State mental health officials and the Office of Administration are moving forward with planning and design for the Fulton State Hospital, even as state lawmakers still debate how to pay for it.
"Architectural design is being selected right now," state Mental Health Director Keith Schafer told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee Monday afternoon.
"We have been looking at new state facilities that have been built in other states over the last seven years, have taken a look at their costs, design and so on. There are a few that we very much like."
But, he added, even after the new 300-bed, $200 million facility is finished, its expanded space for the Sexual Offender Rehabilitation Treatment Services program (SORTS) only buys "the state somewhere between four and five years before we have to address the question of SORTS. The problem is, we'll have to address it sooner rather than later."
SORTS is a long-term, high-security, civil involuntary treatment program for people convicted of various sex-related crimes, but who are found by the courts to be sexual predators who require continued treatment after their prison sentences.
The Mental Health department currently treats about 200 people in SORTS programs at Fulton State Hospital and at Farmington, Schafer reported.
The department's budget request asks lawmakers to pay for two more 25-bed units, which will be filled "over the next two years," he said.
The request for Fulton's new unit is for $2.9 million, and the equivalent of an additional 44.98 full-time employees.
Each year, Schafer added: "We will grow like clockwork, by about 20 individuals.
"That's a very small percentage of all the people who have sexual predation problems or sexual offense problems that Corrections refers to the attorney general's office for this process."
And that growth means, Schafer said, "We're going to have trouble, even as we're building Fulton - no matter how fast we build Fulton - and we're going to have to figure out how to jury-rig it until we get Fulton built."
Once the new hospital is finished, psychiatric patients currently staying in the Guhleman complex will be moved, and the Guhleman building will be devoted only to the SORTS program.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer wondered if lawmakers should pass "stronger criminal penalties for repeat sexual offenders - because that would take them out of your hands and give them to Corrections, and we would pay a fraction, on an annual basis, of what it costs in your program."
The senator said he shares Kurt Schaefer's concerns, and that lawmakers already have passed stronger sentencing laws.
"I have been told by other folks that it's such a small percentage of the people who are the really bad guys, that may, or may not, have an impact," he added.
Either way, the Mental Health director said, "We need to re-think how we do SORTS, either as a program or as facilities space."
The long-term commitment isn't permanent, he said.
"We have three individuals who have been placed on very tight conditional release and are still at (Farmington), but are involved now in community activities," Schafer reported.
"That's progress. That's helpful."