Budget Plan Boosts Hopes of Cal State Backers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson made only a brief reference in his proposed budget to converting Camarillo State Hospital into Ventura County's first public university, but local officials say they are encouraged anyway and will continue their push to launch the campus by the end of the decade.

In unveiling his budget proposal Thursday, Wilson outlined efforts underway to determine the cost of transforming the 60-year-old mental hospital into a Cal State University campus.

And he threw his support behind a campaign to round up local businesses and other partners interested in sharing space at the proposed campus and helping shoulder the financial load.

Local officials, who have been hammering out a conversion plan since last year, said they viewed the governor's spending plan as a mandate to continue their work.

And, once Cal State officials complete a financial analysis of the conversion, they said they hope that Wilson's final budget will include money to begin remaking the hospital's 85 buildings, situated on 600 acres south of Camarillo, into the system's 23rd campus.

"I'm pleased to see it written as it is," said Handel Evans, president of the proposed Cal State Channel Islands campus. "What it does is open the door for us to move forward with our work. I'm sort of delighted we are mentioned at all."

Added Cal State University spokeswoman Colleen Bentley-Adler: "This is not an indication of lack of support from the governor. He is waiting until we finish our work until he commits to the project."

Wilson's budget proposal, which starts a process aimed at producing a final state spending plan by June 30, also included a $238-million boost for the California Community College system, a 5.6% increase from this fiscal year.

The extra money will allow community college districts, including the three-college district in Ventura County, to invest in high technology and help people make the transition from welfare-dependency to self-sufficiency.

Also, Wilson's budget document includes $3.4 million to maintain the Camarillo State Hospital facility and grounds for one year after its closure, scheduled to occur by July 1.

Despite considerable criticism from mental-health advocates, Wilson targeted the hospital for closure last year because of dwindling numbers of patients and rising costs.

Supporters of a university campus at Camarillo State Hospital said they view funding of the hospital after it closes as a positive sign.

"What we got was a small procedural step that is necessary to keep the facility alive," Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) said. "I believe that is a formal recognition that the campus is going ahead. It's not momentous, but it's one of the small steps necessary to take a long journey."

Ventura County is the most populous county in the state without a four-year university.

In November, Wilson's hand-picked task force of state and local leaders agreed that a university campus was the best possible future use of the mental hospital.

Since then, a team of Cal State officials has been trying to pin down the exact cost of converting the hospital into a university campus.

The governor's task force estimated it would cost between $25 million and $50 million to complete that work and $20 million a year to operate the facility.

Now, Cal State officials are doing some figuring of their own.

A financial analysis of the conversion plan is expected by April 1. After that, if the Cal State trustees sign off on the plan, there would still be enough time for Wilson to include money for the conversion in his final budget.

"The big question is whether we can put together a viable business plan," Evans said. "Even if we just get a dollar, what it will do is say, 'Now we are on the road to creating a university.' "

To help ease the financial load, Cal State officials have embarked on a campaign to round up local businesses and governmental partners interested in sharing space at the university.

The proposed Cal State campus, with a projected enrollment of 2,250 students by 2005, would not have an immediate need to occupy the entire hospital complex. So university officials have issued a call for companies that might like to relocate to the hospital complex and pay rent.

So far the response has been encouraging, officials said. But they said moving forward with the conversion plan depends largely on whether those types of community partnerships can be formed.

"I think it's hopeful," Assemblyman Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard) said. "But I think a lot of it rests on the shoulders of the Cal State people to see what they are able to line up."

* MAIN STORY: Gov Pete wilson's proposed $66.6-billion state budget details plans to cut welfare and boost education spending. A1

* LOCAL FUNDING: Educators hail plan to fund an extension of Oxnard's academic year. B6

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