Lawmakers expressed frustration Thursday about the potential June 30 closure of a mental health center in Brunswick over a $50,000 dispute with the state, saying there should be resources in the parent organization’s $50 million budget to keep it open.

Saco-based Sweetser runs the Learning and Recovery Center in Brunswick and many other outpatient and residential programs in Maine for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

“When I heard about this I thought to myself, ‘This is kind of stupid,’ ” said Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock. “I don’t want to see them close their doors over such a small difference of opinion.”

Malaby said an organization as sizable and as rooted in the community as Sweetser should be able to raise money to fill budget gaps. The center in Brunswick serves about 1,000 people with mental illness per year.

“It would be terrible to do this over $50,000,” said Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon.

Sweetser spokeswoman Stephanie Hanner left the door open to a resolution, saying Thursday that a compromise is possible.

“We want to work this out, to work through this,” said Hanner, who noted that Sweetser negotiated with the state for about a year, without success.

She said Sweetser’s development team is looking for other sources of funding to keep the center open. “We’re hoping some private donors will step forward.”

Sweetser asked the state to contribute an additional $50,000 toward the Learning and Recovery Center’s annual budget of nearly $300,000. That would bring Sweetser’s costs down to about $40,000, in line with what the nonprofit contributed to operations when the center opened 10 years ago.

Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services kept funding level. In an email Wednesday, department spokesman John Martins said the state could not justify more money because Sweetser “was underspending in its current contract by more than $40,000.”

Hanner disputed the idea that state funding was going unspent at the center.

Responding to questions by email Thursday, Martins appeared to be referring to spending on several of Sweetser’s contracts with the state, which cover a wide range of programs. He did not respond to questions asking for clarification.

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the House chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said Sweetser may be the victim of political gamesmanship.

Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves used to be director of business development for Sweetser. During Democrats’ failed attempt to expand Maine’s Medicaid program last year, Eves’ ties to Sweetser were criticized by Republicans, who said Eves would benefit personally from Medicaid expansion.

Lawmakers ultimately found that Eves had no conflicts of interest. Eves’ spokeswoman Jodi Quintero confirmed that, as of this spring, he no longer works for the nonprofit.

Farnsworth said Sweetser has a sizable budget but the money is probably spoken for already, so $50,000 could be a significant budget issue.

According to federal tax documents, Sweetser spends nearly $90,000 per year on lobbying.

Kathy Watts, 49, of Bath, a client of the Learning and Recovery Center, said she’s pessimistic about the chances of the center staying open past June 30.

“This place is wonderful. I don’t know what I’m going to do if it closes,” said Watts, who has a peer counselor to help her cope with post-traumatic stress and borderline personality disorders.

While the center in Brunswick could be saved, the larger issue is that the state underfunds community-based mental health treatment, said Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Without such programs, she said, people with mental illness are more likely to end up hospitalized or in county jails, which is more expensive for taxpayers.

“It’s exactly the model of the type of programs we want to see all over the state,” Mehnert said. “Meeting individuals with the level of treatment when they need it, where they need it not only costs less in the long run, it’s more effective.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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