Gov. Pete Wilson proposed closing the Camarillo Developmental Center and State Hospital in his state budget message Wednesday, but some Democratic legislative leaders immediately criticized him for diverting too many mental health dollars to law enforcement.
And while battle lines formed in Sacramento over Wilson's proposal, another potential split appeared between some city officials in Camarillo and county leaders lobbying to keep the hospital open as a psychiatric facility by introducing a larger population of mentally ill criminals.
"If you're talking about converting it to a prison with guards and walls, we don't want it," Camarillo Mayor David M. Smith said. "It would be the worst thing I could imagine."
Wilson announced his proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 at a Sacramento news conference Wednesday. Administration sources had told The Times on Monday that the proposal to shut down Camarillo State Hospital would be part of the state budget plan.
Among other things, Wilson's budget recommends dismantling Camarillo State Hospital on grounds it would impact fewer residents and families than closing one of the other mental-health facilities in California.
"After working with local advisory groups, both the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Developmental Services recommend the closure of Camarillo Developmental Center and State Hospital in 1996-97," the report states.
Statewide, the number of developmentally disabled patients has dropped by 3,200 in the past five years, Wilson said. There are now fewer than 900 patients at Camarillo State Hospital, down from 1,200 just three years ago. The vast majority of the patients come from outside Ventura County.
Wilson's plan to close the hospital will be refined before a more detailed report is presented by April 1 to the Legislature, his budget report declared.
But some Democratic leaders in Sacramento criticized Wilson's plan to further consolidate mental-health services, considering the ongoing phasing out of another state mental-health facility, the Stockton Developmental Center.
"It's led to an increase of people with mental and emotional problems on our streets," said state Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the Assembly budget committee.
"The right way to balance your health-care budget isn't by pretending that people don't need health services," Caldera said. "In the short run it may save you money. But in the long run, you end up dealing with them in the criminal justice system."
An aide to Democratic Caucus Chairman Richard Polanco said Wilson wants too much money spent on prisons and not enough on social services.
"People on the Democratic side of the aisle are beginning to wonder why corrections and prisons seem to always increase and the rest of the budget seems stagnant," said Chris Flammer, the aide.
"Some members of the Democratic Caucus are saying we should take another look at our priorities," Flammer said.
Stephen Mayberg, state director of mental health, said although Wilson has recommended that Camarillo State Hospital be closed, the facility could remain open if it accepts more court-ordered mental patients.
Mayberg, who plans to visit Ventura County as soon as this month to discuss that possibility with local officials, said he expects the state's mentally ill criminal population to increase by 50% over the next five years.
"Not only will we involve the city of Camarillo, we'll want to involve other nearby cities," Mayberg said. "You're talking about the economics of 1,500 employees and an $80-million payroll."
But Mayberg said he could not guarantee that potentially violent criminals would never be housed at Camarillo State Hospital under the conversion plan being pitched by county leaders.
He plans to meet with county Mental Health Director Randall Feltman and Supervisor John K. Flynn later this month.
But some Camarillo officials said Wednesday they do not want potentially violent felons housed at the nearby state hospital. Camarillo is already home to a California Youth Authority campus.
"I don't think we need another prison here of any kind," said Councilwoman Charlotte Craven, who said she has received half a dozen calls from residents all expressing the same concern.
"The question after that is what will happen to that facility," she said. "I'm one of those people who still prefer a university at the site."
Flynn said he plans to schedule meetings with Camarillo city officials so the Ventura County community can present a united front to Mayberg and other state decision-makers.
"It should be in their best interest, purely from an economic point of view," said Flynn, who said he would be willing to accept most court-ordered mentally ill criminals at the facility.
"Camarillo State is a major employer," he added. "We need to meet with them so they become more informed. These are not easy issues to understand."
County Health Director Feltman said some violent patients could be treated at Camarillo State Hospital with virtually no threat to community residents.
"It depends on who they are, what the screening mechanism is and who goes to the facility," Feltman said.
"It's one thing to be a threat to the community and it's another thing to have committed a violent act in the past."