Md. Board of Public Works OK’s $1 lease to state university for psychiatric hospital

On a vote of 2-1, the Board of Public Works voted in favor of leasing Spring Grove Hospital Center to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County at a hearing on Wednesday. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

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To the chagrin of Comptroller Peter V. R. Franchot (D), the Maryland Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to lease one of the state’s three publicly run psychiatric hospital campuses to the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The cost: $1.

Although the university has no specific plans at the moment, UMBC wants to use the hospital grounds to eventually expand its campus. But the lack of an official plan — and the low, low price — vexed Franchot.

“This is not the time for such a consequential transfer without a long-term plan in place to address the future of the property and the state’s already strained mental health system,” the comptroller said in a statement after the meeting.

Franchot was the lone dissenting vote, with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and State Treasurer Dereck E. Davis (D) supporting the lease arrangement.

The lease is poised to last up to 10 years, with the ability to extend it for another 10. When the Department of Health fully vacates the property, ownership will officially fall to the university. State officials have not said where the patients currently at the facility will go at that point.

In an interview after Wednesday’s hearing, Patrick Moran, the president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 3, said the vote was unsurprising but the immediate effects it will have on the workers his union represents are unclear.

“…[We] need to have a productive and respectful conversation and planning session with [the Maryland Department of Health] moving forward but I don’t know if that is possible under this administration given their disdain for working people and the mental health community, as a whole,” he said.

The Spring Grove Hospital Center, one of the oldest psychiatric hospitals in the country, has over 70 buildings that sit on approximately 175 acres of land in Catonsville. It employs about 800 state workers and has 397 psychiatric beds, most of which serve forensic psychiatric patients, or mentally ill people who have been charged with or sentenced for violent crimes.

According to Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader, 33 of the buildings on the hospital campus have been “decommissioned.”

Still, Franchot was perplexed how, “at a time when the real estate market is exploding to a historic high, 175 acres of prime land is valued at $1.”

Asked why such a large property could have such a low selling point, Nelson E. Reichart, principal deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of General Services, said that appraisers estimated the land value was $20 million but because of damage, there was an estimated cost of about $135 million to make the property “suitable for development.”

Franchot asked Schrader why there was such a rush to lease the land — especially considering that he, Schrader, Hogan and Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the current president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, would no longer be in their current offices come January.

Hrabowski is poised to retire at the end of the academic year. Franchot is one of more than a dozen candidates in the 2022 race to replace Hogan, who cannot seek a third term. While UMBC has no current plans for the grounds, Hogan and Hrabowski are expected to appear at an event marking the ceremonial transfer of the property on May 18.

Maryland Department of Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader tells Comptroller Peter V. R. Franchot (D) the plan to lease Spring Grove Hospital Center has been in the works for about five years. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Schrader said the process of leasing out Spring Grove had been five years in the making and that the plan needed to begin so that state government could work toward constructing the first of four new crisis centers across Maryland.

“We’re going to run through the tape,” Schrader responded. “I’m going to be there until the very last minute of the very last day and we can get a lot of work done in eight months.”

Residents of Catonsville, mental health advocates and union representatives implored the board to defer the vote to another meeting — with some even requesting it be pushed so far off that it be taken up by the next gubernatorial administration.

Rosemary Wertz, the field coordinator for AFT Healthcare-Maryland, which represents health care workers in state government, said that the Department of Health determined Spring Grove was unnecessary in its 2041 Facility Master Plan.

“But that plan was developed based on volume projections, and those projections were calculated using pre-COVID numbers,” she said, noting that Spring Grove and Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville expanded their psychiatric bed capacity on a temporary basis last summer.

“Those two units are now permanent. They were staffed with temporary staff, now they’re permanent,” said Wertz. “And there’s still a waiting list of individuals in detention waiting for a placement in a hospital.”

Chase Cook, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, said there are currently 78 people on the waitlist to be admitted at Spring Grove Hospital Center.

Jim Himel, a Catonsville resident and executive director of the Spring Grove Arboretum, Inc., a nonprofit seeking to use some of the Spring Grove campus for an arboretum, said he would like to have seen the university’s plan for the property before it was leased.

Himel added that his community has worked alongside the state-run psychiatric hospital, making up a large portion of its workforce and providing the facility with volunteers.

“I would suggest to you this: … if these facilities and patients are moved to your neighborhood, would they be welcomed by your neighbors as, if you will, the convicted, most violent, criminal mental health patients in the state?” he asked. “They are welcome in Catonsville.”

Franchot stood steadfast with those in opposition, saying that his office had been flooded with constituent emails since the item was added to the board’s agenda on Friday.

“All they’ve heard is ‘we don’t know,” he said. “We. Don’t. Know.”

Schrader said the hospital will not be closed until other clinical programs are put into place. Deer’s Head Center on the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland Hospital Center in Hagerstown, two other state-run facilities, were poised to shutter this year but were kept open through state budget negotiations.

Former U.S. and Maryland Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a Democratic candidate for governor, is scheduled to visit the Hagerstown facility with AFSCME members, who have endorsed his candidacy, on Friday.

Among the concerned correspondences his office received was an email from the House Health and Government Operations Committee Chair Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) asking him to defer the vote on the measure.

According to the comptroller, Peña-Melnyk dropped that position upon learning that House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) was in favor of the arrangement.

“I was not aware of the speaker’s interest in this matter,” according to a letter from Peña-Melnyk that Franchot read. “I will follow leadership’s lead.”

“I mean, is that what we’re reduced to?” Franchot asked.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Jones said she is happy that the fate of Spring Grove Hospital Center has finally been settled.

“I’m pleased to see this property finally being transferred to a trusted community partner like UMBC,” Jones said. “Our commitment to the Spring Grove Hospital and its employees remains strong and I’m confident in their shared future.”

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