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California and the West

Coalinga Gets Its Wish: State Hospital for Sex Offenders

August 03, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Joaquin Valley town of Coalinga has triumphed in its long-running bid to become home to the state's first hospital exclusively for sexually violent predators, state officials announced Wednesday.

Civic and business leaders in the economically struggling community said they were elated to attract the $365-million facility, which is expected to employ up to 2,000 psychiatrists, nurses, technicians and support workers after it opens in 2004.

"I feel very good," said Larry McVicar, a Coalinga city councilman who pushed to put the facility next to the town's Pleasant Valley State Prison. "We made a good case and most of the citizens of Coalinga definitely want it, because it meets a real need for job opportunity."

Coalinga beat out a site near El Centro in the Imperial Valley east of San Diego and was chosen after a 2-year search by the state Department of Mental Health. Several other towns--including Atascadero, Soledad and Tehachapi--had withdrawn from the competition, saying they feared escapes and the damage the hospital would do to their civic images.

State mental health officials said Coalinga--an oil town in the foothills above Interstate 5--offered several advantages over the Imperial Valley location.

The town showed more solid support for the state's first new mental hospital in nearly a half century. The City Council unanimously backed the project; in Imperial County, another possible site, the Board of Supervisors was split 3 to 2 in favor.

Coalinga requested $7 million less in financial support from the state to offset the costs of improving roads and other public facilities to accommodate the new work force. State analysts decided it would be easier and cheaper to transport prisoners and attract employees to the Fresno Valley location.

"When we started down this road, we had two main requirements," said state Department of Mental Health Director Stephen Mayberg. "The community had to want us and we needed to build on land adjacent to an existing state prison."

Mayberg added: "Every possible effort will be made to employ local residents."

Final environmental clearances remain, but state officials said they do not expect significant hurdles on the way to a 2002 construction start date.

The need for a facility for sexually violent predators arose four years ago when California approved a law allowing indefinite confinement of repeat sexual offenders. Facilities at Atascadero State Hospital do not have room for the estimated 800 predators who could be locked up by 2004.

Coalinga City Council members consistently supported construction of the locked and secured hospital on the outskirts of the town. They were backed by the Chamber of Commerce and businesspeople, who said they have been suffering as oil industry jobs dried up along with the region's wells.

But not everyone will welcome the new hospital.

"Welcome to the sexual predator capital of California," said Barbara Lucas, a schoolteacher who led a petition drive against the facility. "I don't think this is going to encourage a lot of future industry in the area."

Lucas criticized the City Council for not allowing residents to vote on whether to build the hospital. But city leaders said it was clear from public hearings and talk around town that the vast majority of residents want the facility.

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