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Turn State Hospital Into University, Panel Says

Camarillo: The gubernatorial task force formally endorses the Cal State plan but suggests some patients still be treated on the grounds.


After months of analysis, a spate of hearings and testimony from Camarillo State Hospital residents and staff members, a task force studying options for the future of the property formally endorsed a plan Friday to convert the grounds into Ventura County's first public university.

Members of the gubernatorial task force voted overwhelmingly to pursue a proposal by Cal State University officials to move the Ventura campus of Cal State Northridge to the hospital grounds by the fall of 1998 for start-up of a new Cal State Channel Islands campus.

But, at the same time, the panel also strongly recommended that Gov. Pete Wilson and state legislators explore a plan to use a portion of the property to treat those mentally ill and retarded patients with families in the immediate area.

"If you can't have the whole pie, maybe you should settle for a piece of it," said Leo O'Hearn, a task force member and retired attorney from Oxnard whose son lives at Camarillo State Hospital. "That's what we're talking about."

A spokeswoman for Wilson said Friday the governor looks forward to reading the report, but that no decision has been made on whether he will set aside start-up money for the proposed campus.

"He has been waiting to see the formal task force recommendations," spokeswoman Lisa Kalustian said. "After he's reviewed the recommendations, then he'll be issuing his opinions and directives."

A draft 1997-98 state spending plan is due by mid-January, and Cal State administrators have said they need an infusion of cash to build the university.

The decision Friday effectively frees about $12 million in closing costs that state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) successfully put in escrow while the task force considered its options.

With the state hospital scheduled to close by July 1, the approximately 800 patients remaining at the facility will be moved to community group homes and other state hospitals by late spring.

But Supervisor Frank Schillo has asked his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to approve in concept the idea of administering a satellite facility on the hospital grounds for patients at the facility who have families within a 75-mile radius.

A discussion and vote on that recommendation are scheduled Tuesday.

Not everyone on the 20-member task force supported the plan to turn the mental-health facility into California's 23rd state university.

Wright said she doubts that university officials can come up with the $80 million or more in total costs needed to launch the new college. She also chided the task force for overlooking the need to treat Californians with mental-health needs.

"You are absolutely down the line going to wish you never did this," she told her panel colleagues. "The worst thing we're doing here is closing the hospital."

Building a university "is a wonderful, exciting thing to do, but it could be done anywhere," said Wright, a task force member. "It doesn't have to be done here."

Two years ago Cal State University trustees voted to pay $7 million for a 260-acre lemon grove west of Camarillo to house the long-awaited Cal State Channel Islands campus.


The property, now worth only about $6 million, would be sold and the money used to help pay costs to open the campus on the state hospital property, university officials say.

Brian Bowley, a union official who represents about 600 hospital technicians on the task force, urged the panel to forsake the university option and pursue an alternate proposal to convert the hospital property into a 1,400-bed juvenile prison.

"We've made a mistake here in closing Camarillo State Hospital," he said. "Many of the people we serve, their treatments will be set back. It's not an easy transition" to move to other institutions.

The California Youth Authority "has a much better chance of securing the funding," he said.

But the vast majority of task force members--business executives, educators, local officials and community leaders--concluded that opening a Cal State campus on the hospital property would be an economic boon for Ventura County.

"Change comes very hard for everyone and this is a time of great change," said Carolyn Leavens, a task force member and Ventura rancher who has pursued a public university in Ventura County for years.

"It can also be an enormous opportunity," Leavens said. "Money is being saved here."

Within two decades, the proposed Cal State Channel Islands campus is expected to enroll up to 15,000 students. Meantime, university officials want to lease sections of the property to businesses and other state agencies.


State mental-health officials said they could save more than $23 million a year by shutting down the 60-year-old hospital.

Wilson ordered the hospital closed early this year due to dwindling patient load and spiraling treatment costs, which have risen to more than $110,000 per patient. The facility employs more than 1,500 people.

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