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Owners of Complex for Mentally Ill Plan Renovation to Improve Safety


VENTURA — Owners of Ventura Garden Manor, one of the county's oldest and largest private group homes for the mentally ill, said they hope their emergency renovation plans will convince city officials that the 61-bed facility can be operated safely.

City officials have reviewed detailed plans to correct the safety hazards at the five-home board-and-care complex along Santa Clara Avenue near downtown.

A year ago, after new owners took over the complex, managers put three of the homes' residents and some hired laborers to work excavating under one of the houses to make room for a basement dining hall.

No construction permits or inspections had been obtained. By the time a city fire inspector noticed the work last spring, only 25% of the foundation remained intact and the house was in danger of collapse, officials said.

An architect hired by Dom Nicolas, the facility's chief executive, has set tight deadlines for the repair work to shorten the time that residents are displaced.

On Tuesday, fire officials said the repair plans were encouraging but ambitious considering the numerous problems on the property.

City, county and state officials are scheduled to meet with owners on Monday to discuss the building plans and set the goals for the project.

Only 19 of the original 41 residents who lived in the facility remain there. Eight were evacuated late last month, and 14 others were moved out this month.

Some residents could return by May when construction is expected to be completed, but it could be months before all return.

Poor conditions at the Ventura Garden Manor, which provides nearly 24% of the county's 260 beds for the mentally ill, are a major concern for county health officials who are already faced with a tremendous housing shortage.

"We have half the beds that Santa Barbara County has for our population," said Lou Matthews, a local mental health advocate. "And Santa Barbara County has problems."

An initial investment of more than $100,000 will correct some problems at the group home, said Ventura architect Ed Campbell. But the facility's owners need approval from city officials to stay open.

Without such clearances, the state Department of Social Services will not issue the Ventura Garden Manor a permanent operating license. The facility has operated on a temporary license since last May.

Although Campbell said the remaining residents can safely stay on the property during construction, fire officials have withheld a decision on such occupancy until work begins.

It will require a substantial investment, according to Patricia Kosich of the county's Behavioral Health Department.

"He's not making a lot of money," Kosich said. "He has a tremendous amount of overhead."

Ventura Garden Manor Corp., the partnership that employs Nicolas, assumed operation of the complex of aging homes last spring. At that time, the partnership inherited dozens of building and fire code violations that had existed on the property for years.

The board-and-care facility receives about $700 per month in Social Security payments from each resident, which generated about $344,000 last year. Although the county provides some supplemental funding, the massive renovations will represent a third of the business' income.

Starting next month, Campbell said, steel reinforcements will be added beneath the house to stabilize the structure. Then, the dirt basement will get a concrete floor and drywall to be converted into a storage room.

Windows that have long been painted shut will be pried open. A 1950s-era heating unit will be replaced with modern equipment, and two exits will be added to a basement apartment.

A laundry facility will be moved and modernized. A kitchen in one house will be converted to a storage room, and a new kitchen will be added to a separate dining room.

Until that work is complete, Deputy Fire Marshal Brian Clark said he would monitor the progress with daily phone calls and weekly visits to the site.

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