Carroll Hall, a psychiatric rehabilitation program that has served the county's mentally ill for 19 years, will close Jan. 30.
Expected cost increases and pressure from state health officials to privatize services contributed to the county health department's decision to end the program when its lease runs out in January, said Larry L. Leitch, deputy county health officer.
Operating out of a blue building at 181 E. Main St. in Westminster, Carroll Hall serves about 90 clients, many of whom have spent time in psychiatric hospitals.
The program aims to help them to live more independently by teaching them cooking, budgeting and job skills.
"This change is not looked upon as a good thing for them," said Denise Ziegler, Carroll Hall's intake coordinator.
"Some feel it's the only place they can call home," she said. "It's kind of like a surrogate family."
At Carroll Hall, the clients operate a snack bar on their own, learn computer skills and typing in the clerical unit, provide janitorial services and plan recreational outings.
When the program closes, its clients will be offered the chance to transfer to another psychiatric rehabilitation program.
There are three such programs in the county, Prologue at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville; Aspire, another county health department program, also in Sykesville; and the program at Granite House, a residential rehabilitation program for the mentally ill in Westminster.
Most of Carroll Hall's clients come from Westminster.
"The thing we've all got to concentrate on is that nobody gets dropped or lost in the system," said Spencer Gear, director of Granite House, which probably will absorb many of Carroll Hall's clients.
Granite House has applied for state funds to expand its psychiatric rehabilitation program and might receive some money budgeted for Carroll Hall services if that program's clients transfer to Granite House, Mr. Leitch said.
$790,000 combined budget
The combined fiscal 1995 budget for the Carroll Hall and Aspire programs was $790,000, he said.
Carroll Hall is retaining its clinical component, so the program's clients will continue to see their doctors and counselors at the county health department.
The clients, ranging in age from 18 to 70, were told of Carroll Hall's impending closing last week. Some of them have been attending the program for 16 years.
Ms. Ziegler said the reactions ranged from "quite upset" to "numb."
"Without this place, I think, a lot of us would be in a mental hospital right now," said a 59-year-old woman who has been attending Carroll Hall for two years.
"To lose this place would be like losing my life in a way," she said.
Carroll Hall has rented the space on East Main Street for 10 years. The lease ran out June 30, but Mr. Leitch said the health department got a seven-month extension so that it could make plans for the program.
Factors in decision
Several factors played a role in the closing of Carroll Hall, but the difficulties surrounding the leasing of a site for the program led to the health department's decision.
Carroll Hall is one of the few publicly run psychiatric rehabilitation programs in Maryland. Most are operated by private, nonprofit agencies, and state health officials are pushing for privatization of such services when possible.
Carroll County mental health officials are developing a proposal that would create a private, nonprofit agency to run mental health services in the county. Several other counties have already established Core Service Agencies to oversee mental health services.
Mr. Leitch said the health department was reluctant to enter into a long-term lease for the Carroll Hall program when it is likely that the program will be taken over by a private, nonprofit agency.
Under state regulations, any lease for a state program must be for a minimum of five years, and the state is required to pay to the landlord several upfront costs, such as expenditures associated with required renovations.
Mr. Leitch said such costs would have meant an additional $100,000 in yearly rental payments for the Carroll Hall building. In fiscal 1995, the health department paid $27,000 to rent the space.
"It's a complex, cumbersome process, and it can be very expensive to start up one of these leases in addition to the monthly rental payments," Mr. Leitch said.
Before 1993, the county health department followed county guidelines governing the leasing of property and wasn't subject to as many restrictions.
Another problem facing the health department has been that vans used to transport Carroll Hall clients to and from the program have been breaking down regularly and the department's budget includes no money for new vehicles.
Many Carroll Hall clients are having difficulty accepting the decision to close the program.
"They're asking to have some say in what happens to them," said Carroll Hall's coordinator, Anne Nevin.
"Why ruin something that's good, that's going to help thousands of people in the future get through their mental illness," said Robert Bennett, 40, who has been coming to Carroll Hall for 12 years.
During that time, Mr. Bennett has held a variety of jobs at Carroll Hall, ranging from food service positions to maintenance work.
'Like dropping a bomb'
"If they drop this program, it's like dropping a bomb on people who really need help and who have no resources to get it," he said.
Most clients are wary of being transferred to similar programs in the county, but Mr. Gear of Granite House said he plans to do everything possible to make the transition as smooth as possible.
"The anxiety level is very, very high, and I think everybody really has got to respect that," he said. "We're certainly going to do everything we can as a provider to try to fill the gap."