Completed in 2003, $19M State Hospital Held up over Security, Construction

Problems with security fence, fire system hold up opening of hospital for mentally ill

A few miles south of Milledgeville on Ga. 112, a brand new $19 million state hospital building sits vacant and unused.

State officials say they need it to treat mentally ill people who are charged with committing crimes.

But even though construction was completed in 2003 and the construction branch of Georgia's state government accepted the structure from the contractor and architect, the building has been deemed "nonfunctional" in its current condition.

Since 2003, according to state records, a host of problems have turned up. Among them:

  • Electronic locking and fire alarm systems that didn't work properly.
  • Roof leaks throughout the building, and ceilings that weren't properly attached to the structure.
  • Air vents that could be pushed out, allowing access to the space above the ceilings.
  • An exterior security fence that had to be completely taken down and rebuilt.

A Department of Human Resources official wrote in an Aug. 29 e-mail that he and his colleagues were "amazed as more lack of construction/poor workmanship issues are found. However, thank God they are being found before we attempt to put forensic patients and staff into this building."

The construction division chief of the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission says the state will take legal steps to go after the surety bond that the contractor put up before beginning the project. The money would be used to pay for completing the work.

The contractor says his company built the building according to the design specifications and addressed all the problems that were brought to his attention. If state officials are dissatisfied with the design, he said, that's not the contractor's fault.

The architect declined to comment at all.

Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, said, "I haven't been able to track down all of the details going into this, but it does sound like somebody dropped the ball somewhere along the way. The contractor looks like he skimped on a number of items. And it does look like the GSFIC may not have picked up on that early enough. There's probably lots of blame to go around. The bottom line is we've got a building sitting there and it has been ready for a year and we have a tremendous need for it but yet we haven't been able to occupy it."

State Rep. Bobby Parham, D-Milledgeville, said, "That building is a perfect way not to build a building."

Growing Need, Limited Capacity

The Payton B. Cook Building is supposed to be a maximum-security "forensic hospital" - a place where criminal defendants can be evaluated for mental competency and treated if found incompetent or "not guilty by reason of insanity." In a mental health system that tries to treat most clients in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their needs, a forensic hospital stands out as a small but important high-security exception.

The Georgia Department of Human Resources' statewide mental health plan says there is a growing need for forensic beds, "but the numbers needing services are far greater than the system has the capacity to serve." As evidence, the plan cites the large numbers of mentally ill inmates now in county jails.

Several regional hospitals around Georgia offer forensic services, but traditionally the largest and most heavily used forensic center has been in Milledgeville.

Forensic patients at Central State are currently housed in the Binion Building, which has a capacity of 84. Built in 1946, it is a grim prison-like facility with hard tile interiors and a walled-in courtyard in the center. Since at least the 1970s, state officials and mental health advocates have recommended replacing it.

In the 1990s, the state Legislature agreed. The Georgia General Assembly authorized construction of a 196-bed forensic hospital. Estimated cost: $15.2 million.

In 1998, the Atlanta architectural firm of Nix Mann Perkins & Will was hired to design the hospital and oversee construction. LPS Construction Co. of Statesboro, a company with a long track record of building large commercial and industrial projects, submitted the low bid of $16.2 million and was hired in August 2000. Ground-breaking was held three months later.

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