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

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.

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.

Read more at WTOP.

Photo: 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.

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