From The Huron Daily Tribune

CARO — Tuscola County officials are being encouraged to continue fighting for a new state hospital to stay local, despite information stating a decision was made months ago.

Hundreds of people were left concerned over the weekend regarding their jobs and millions of dollars in revenue that’s in limbo.

Emails between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration and Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon reportedly show officials decided in December 2018 to halt construction of the hospital and to look at other sites.

In an effort to alleviate concerns, former state Rep. Edward Canfield points to the fact there are three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial.

“They are bureaucrats, not legislators. They are department heads. It is the legislators who decide on money and where the buildings are going to be,” said Canfield. “Former Gov. Snyder already agreed to spend $115 on a building in Caro. There was no provision to split that money or for the hospital to go elsewhere. In order to do anything else, they have to go back to the legislators. They can’t just do it.”

Canfield agrees halting construction of a 225,000-square foot hospital in Caro is within the governor’s purview.

“But to make any changes, they will have to go back and present to the legislators other than just halting the project; but, in order to make buildings happen, the legislators have to sign on. The legislators — in all indications that I have had — they are actually behind the current plan for Caro,” said Canfield. “Departments make recommendations, but it is the legislators who decide capital outlay (money) on how things are going to be and where they will happen with permission of the governor by signing it into law.”

Tuscola County commissioners hired Capitol Service in March to help them lobby to keep the new $115 million psychiatric Hospital in the county.

“They are a bi-partisan firm, which we feel is important. They will work with our local state representatives and with us on this,” said county Controller Mike Hoagland. “They are familiar with state government and have helped several other counties.”

Jean Doss will lead Capitol Service’s efforts to develop a strategic plan to lobby for construction in the county, according to Hoagland.

Doss has more than 24 years of experience as a governmental affairs consultant specializing in appropriations, health policy, human services, education, environment, occupational regulation, and advocacy.

“I’ve spoken with her. She is very knowledgable and a go-getter,” Hoagland said.

Lobbying, educating, and presenting information previously helped determine the new hospital should be in the county.

“I believe it was two years ago department heads had already decided to move the Caro Center. I had been told by my appropriation’s chair it was ‘a done deal,’” said Canfield about the conversation. “What we did back then was educate the governor, the legislators and others on the Caro Center, and why it should be kept where it is. Everyone then agreed that keeping the Caro Center in Caro made the most sense for taxpayers, for the county, workers and for the community at large.

“All of the information gathered before to make that decision will be presented again, and my suspicion is we have a very good chance to prevail again. I’m going to hold on to that, and continue to work in that direction.”

Repercussions of the information from the emails are already being felt throughout the Thumb — especially in the housing market.

Judy King, an associate broker with Osentoski Realty Inc. in Caro, said she had two property deals fail because of the news about the Caro Center over the weekend.

“One customer who was going to buy a building in Caro has now decided to hold off,” said King. “Another one, a doctor in another state, sold his house to move to Caro. Now, he is not because of this.

“I think that is happening to other (realty) companies as well in the area.”

In the meantime, Hoagland and a contingent of other officials will be in Lansing Thursday to make their case before a committee to continue with plans to build a psychiatric hospital in the county. That was the consensus of Monday’s county of the whole committee meeting.

“We will keep pleading our case and presenting information,” said Hoagland.

When the story broke, Communications Director and Press Secretary Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield and State Rep. for Phil Green (Canfield’s successor) each expressed outrage when they learned from reporters about plans made back in December 2018 to stop the Caro hospital and the subterfuge regarding that move.

“I’m appalled at the departments that they would boldface lie to us,” said Green noting the “whole thing wreaks of politics.”

To rationalize the decision to halt and reevaluate the project, Gordon cited concerns about staffing shortages, the ability for patients’ families to be involved in their treatment, and access to water.

Commissioners hired an engineering firm that found current wells on the hospital grounds can be upgraded for use at a cost lower than the projected $2.4 million to run a line 1.9 miles for municipal water.

As for staffing shortages, according to ASSCME Union Local 831 President Matt Campbell, there were 16 more residential caregivers hired in March, and there will be 25 more hired in April.

So far, the state has spent about $3 million between drafting blueprints for the 200-bed facility and demolishing buildings to make way for new construction.

In 1914, the Caro Center started out as a Farm Colony for Epileptics, and many of the buildings date back to then. Several have been abandoned for years.

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