Lawmakers from both parties, north and south alike, balked Tuesday at Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to cut funding for “critical life-safety” improvements at Lakes Crossing and move the money to Rawson-Neal, the state’s southern mental health hospital.
Rawson-Neal and Sandoval came under fire recently when it was discovered the hospital improperly discharged some mental patients without providing any support or a plan — in some cases, just a bus ticket out of state.
But southern mental health facilities also have drawn criticism because of the increasing number of patients waiting in emergency rooms for appropriate treatment programs. That problem already has drawn a lawsuit demanding increased capacity for mental health patients and expanded programs.
To stem the growing controversy, Sandoval called on lawmakers for a special Interim Finance Committee meeting this week — just three weeks before the already-scheduled regular IFC — to jump-start improvements to southern mental health programs.
Lawmakers agreed that those improvements are critically needed. They unanimously approved two work programs directing $2.1 million from contingency funds and healthy Nevada tobacco settlement dollars primarily into expanding staff.
Along with that, the Sandoval administration proposed, among other things, pulling the plug on two projects at Lakes Crossing Center for Mentally Ill Offenders in Sparks.
That drew objections from several members of the committee who said the life-safety upgrades and control room renovations at Lakes Crossing were described as critical during the 2013 legislative session.
In addition, they pointed out that would prevent Lakes from getting accreditation worth up to $1 million or more from the federal government for Medicare/Medicaid services a year.
Most of the $3 million freed up would be used to renovate the old Stein Hospital, adding about 50 beds for patients with serious mental illnesses.
Assemblyman Andy Eisen, D-Las Vegas, quoted testimony from during session that indicated the fire alarm system works only intermittently and that the doors are unsafe.
“What has changed?” he asked.
Public Works Manager Gus Nuñez said that despite the original description as “life safety” (a description he emphasized using air-quotes), the work isn’t really critical and no one would be in danger by delaying the work at Lakes Crossing. He said Lakes can operate for another two years until the next budget cycle.
“I feel it’s doable for a couple of years,” he said.
That brought a reaction from Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, who said lawmakers were told during session that control room monitors and other systems need replacement and that the doors, alarms and other security and safety at Lakes don’t always work.
“This proposed solution I don’t think is credible,” he said. “This is putting life safety in air quotes, that’s what the administration is asking us to do.”
“Those of us involved in this discussion during session believed this was a life-safety issue. We accepted that,” said Assemblyman Tom Grady, R-Yerington. “Now you’re sitting here telling us it’s not as big a problem as it was listed in the report. That bothers me.”
They were joined by Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas, among others. Kirkpatrick said there must be a way to renovate the southern Stein Hospital without stripping away the cash needed to fix problems at Lakes Crossing.
Horne joined the others in decrying the cuts mental health has suffered over the past few years, saying the state can’t “continue to kick the ball down the road.”
It was, however, many of those same lawmakers who approved the cuts to mental health program funding over the past three legislative sessions.
IFC Chairman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said she would rather have Willden and the Sandoval administration come to the Aug. 29 scheduled IFC meeting with a plan to take the roughly $3 million out of the contingency fund instead of the Lakes Crossing CIP budget.
Willden said he would return with a different proposal to do both the northern and southern mental health projects at the Aug. 29 IFC meeting.