CAMARILLO — While workers worried Tuesday about Gov. Pete Wilson's plan to shut down Camarillo State Hospital, local officials rallied around a proposal to keep the institution afloat by stocking it with mentally ill criminals.
County mental health officials joined Camarillo city leaders in backing an embryonic plan to fill the threatened facility with nonviolent felons ordered to state psychiatric hospitals by California courts.
"I think that's a good proposal and a good alternative to consider," Camarillo Mayor David M. Smith said. "It would save some jobs."
Meanwhile, many of the clerks, administrators and counselors at the decades-old hospital expressed fear and alarm over Wilson's proposal, which would cost Ventura County more than 1,500 jobs and $80 million in payroll.
"Everybody's in shock," one medical staff worker said. "Nobody here was expecting it."
Mental health advocates and relatives of some Camarillo State Hospital patients worried Tuesday that Wilson's plan would further erode services available to psychiatric patients.
"It's really short-sighted," said Irene King, a past president of the Ventura County Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
"We have the same population of mentally ill in Ventura County as before," she said. "It's not like they're all getting well and going back into society."
In a proposal expected today, Wilson will recommend to the Legislature that the $95-million funding for the hospital be sliced from the budget for the fiscal year beginning in July, administration sources have told The Times.
Wilson's plan backs up a report last month by the state Department of Developmental Services, which concludes that treatment costs at Camarillo State Hospital are too high and its 492 developmentally disabled patients should be moved.
"We once had more than 13,500 people with developmental disabilities and today it's below 5,000," said Dennis Amundson, the developmental services director. "That's why we're consolidating."
Wilson's case for closing the hospital argues that without the developmentally disabled population, there are too few mentally ill patients housed in the facility--385--to justify the hospital's continued operation.
Stephen Mayberg, the state Department of Mental Health director, said Tuesday that if developmentally disabled patients are no longer treated at Camarillo State Hospital, his office would consider abandoning the facility.
"We're looking at all the alternatives," he said. "I want to make sure we maximize any resources we've got."
But with more mentally ill criminals being ordered to state hospitals by the courts, Mayberg said he is interested in adding a new convict element to the current mentally ill population, allowing Camarillo State Hospital to remain open strictly for psychiatric patients. He is planning to meet with county and Camarillo officials within the next month to determine whether there is community support for such a move.
Court-ordered psychiatric commitments under Mayberg's supervision have risen from about 1,400 in 1993 to more than 2,000 today. The numbers are projected to increase by another 50% within five years.
Local officials on Tuesday welcomed the conversion plan as one way to spare the county from an economic calamity that some likened to a smaller version of last year's threat to close the Point Mugu Navy base.
"We've got 1,500 people out there who could lose their jobs," said Carol Nordahl, the executive director of the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce, who plans to organize a community forum to help preserve the hospital.
"Eighty-million dollars in payroll, that's a lot of money," she said. "A lot of buying power."
But none of the local leaders support housing violent offenders in Camarillo like those now locked up at Atascadero and Patton state hospitals.
"My big objection would be to making it a higher-security facility, that would have child molesters and sexual predators," Councilwoman Charlotte Craven said.
County Mental Health Director Randall Feltman said he already has contacted Mayberg on converting Camarillo State to an all-psychiatric hospital.
Feltman and County Supervisor John K. Flynn plan to meet with Mayberg within 30 days to discuss the proposal, Feltman said.
"The [state] budget suggests that it will no longer operate as a developmental center, but that doesn't mean they will close Camarillo State," he said.
"I would like to see a population of mentally ill patients involved in the criminal justice system who need treatment and would not be a threat to the community at Camarillo State," Feltman said.
Mayberg said he would not propose using Camarillo State Hospital grounds to treat criminals unless it had the support of community members. But he also cautioned that if an agreement is not worked out and the facility is mothballed, it would probably be closed permanently.
"We would not want to site any programs where there is an issue of public safety," he said. "Or where the community is resistant."