- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

FULTON, Mo. (AP) - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday defended his plan for constructing a new mental health facility at the Fulton State Hospital amid concerns about how it would be funded.

Nixon wants to issue $198 million in bonds for a new maximum- and intermediate-security facility through a state development board and pay them off through annual legislative appropriations. He proposes setting aside $14 million this year and an additional $14 million in the 2015 budget for the initial bond payments.

The governor said the financial plan is permissible and that a hospital “crumbling and in desperate need of replacement” has become Missouri’s most pressing need. Patients include those committed by the courts for evaluation and treatment and people who have been found not guilty or unable to stand trial because of mental disease.

“This is too important a project to wait anymore,” Nixon said at City Hall in Fulton. “I think that everyone agrees this project needs to get done. This method of financing has been used a number of times in the state of Missouri for critical needs.”

Some lawmakers, including the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a House Democrat who long has worked on the state budget, have voiced concerns about the proposal.

The Fulton State Hospital is Missouri’s only maximum-security psychiatric facility, and the hospital is the oldest public mental health facility west of the Mississippi River. Its first patients were admitted in 1851.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer said Wednesday he wants to build a new facility but that issuing bonds without a vote of the people is “extremely troublesome.” He said he would prefer writing a check for the project.

“If the governor won’t agree to that and wants to do bonding, then I think we need to have a discussion about Fulton being part of a broader bonding package,” said Schaefer, R-Columbia. “But this idea that somehow we’re going to squeak by the voters some bonding proposal doing it piecemeal, starting in a supplemental without going to a vote of taxpayers - I think it’s extremely troublesome.”

Nixon’s budget recommendations for next year include nearly $500 million of additional funding for education, and he said Thursday people do not want to trade those benefits for a new mental health facility. He said it is a better financial decision to not take the capital project through the operating budget used for programs.

Nixon said some concerns seem like an effort to tap support for the hospital in order to include other projects in a bonding package.

Among the existing facilities housing patients at the Fulton State Hospital is the maximum-security Biggs Forensic Center, the intermediate-security Guhleman Forensic Center and the Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services unit. Mental health 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.

Missouri’s current budget includes $13 million for designing a new facility.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said Missouri has used “general revenue bonds” without a public vote previously and that he thinks the hospital would be valid use for that type of bonding.

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Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report.