AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that a proposed new treatment facility for mentally ill patients who have committed crimes may be built in Freeport or somewhere else in southern Maine after a decision last week by legislative leaders that stalled its development on state grounds in Augusta.

LePage told radio show hosts Ric Tyler and George Hale on Bangor-based WVOM that his administration is considering locations in the Bangor area, Freeport and “down south” for the new 21-bed facility. The center is intended to house court-ordered forensic patients who are at the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center but no longer require a hospital setting for treatment.

The proposal to build the so-called “step down” facility comes from the state Department of Health and Human Services and is aimed, in part, at regaining a federal certification and some $20 million in annual funding for Riverview. The secure state hospital has 92 beds and houses patients with dangerous mental health conditions.

Last week, six members of the outgoing Legislative Council deadlocked on whether to allow the project to move forward on state grounds next to the existing psychiatric center, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting against. The 3-3 vote killed the proposal under an obscure law that requires the Legislative Council to sign off on any new construction on state property in the “Capitol Area” of Augusta, which includes the grounds of the State House and Riverview, which is on the east side the Kennebec River and is often referred to as the East Campus.

TRYING TO CIRCUMVENT DEMOCRATS

Democrats on the council said they voted against the LePage administration’s plan because it deserves a public review, but LePage denounced the Democrats on the council, saying “they just don’t care about Mainers with mental health issues.” In his radio interview Tuesday, LePage said the administration would look for a new location where Democrats could not stand in the way.

“They can only stop me over at the East Campus,” he said. “I’m looking at Freeport and the Bangor area – we are looking down south.”

It was not immediately clear why the administration is exploring those areas or what criteria it is using to identify potential sites. LePage’s communications staff did not respond to a request for information Tuesday.

However, the Democrats who voted against the administration’s plan include a lawmaker from Freeport and another from North Berwick, which lies near Maine’s southern border.

Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph said the state had not contacted the town about hosting any new mental health facilities.

“There is nothing that’s come to the town that I’m aware of,” Joseph said.

Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow also said the city has not been contacted about a new mental health facility there. “No, we have not had any contact about that,” Conlow said.

DEMOCRATS WANT ADDED SCRUTINY

State Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, one of the three Democratic members of the Legislative Council who voted against the project, shrugged off LePage’s suggestion that her town was in play for a new facility and said the governor was “posturing.”

Gideon said Democrats agree the state needs to build the step-down facility, but they want it to be vetted publicly to ensure that taxpayer funds and patient rights are not going to be abused. She said Democratic lawmakers have unanswered questions about the LePage administration’s proposal to privatize the facility and whether it is intended to be operated as a prison or a mental health facility. Gideon said because patients in the facility would be in state custody, lawmakers want to ensure there will be public oversight.

“Look, we want to get it done too,” Gideon said. “But these are the questions we have and they are not unreasonable ones.”

Republicans have said Democrats were playing politics and simply trying to block the LePage administration from progress on a problem that has plagued the state for over four years.

Last week, DHHS officials told lawmakers the administration would still move forward with the facility, which it intends to have managed by a private contractor. But they said the decision to keep it off state property in Augusta would cause a delay and add as much as $1 million to the cost of the project, currently estimated at $3.5 million, because they would have to pursue building permits and planning board approval in a new municipality.

The Augusta Planning Board approved the project for the Riverview location in October.

“I’m going to get it,” LePage said. “It’s just not going to be next to Riverview and we won’t be able to use the same staff.”