DES MOINES, Iowa — The space used to treat patients at a now-closed state mental health institute in southwest Iowa is reopening under new management.
The Iowa Department of Corrections is expected to sign a contract this month with a company to lease four wards at the facility once known as the Clarinda Mental Health Institute. Zion Recovery Services, which offers substance abuse treatment around Iowa, is set to expand its residential services.
The three-year contract, which includes an option to renew, could complicate an ongoing legal challenge to reopen the space as a state-run mental health facility.
“It could be very difficult,” said Meredith Baker, a corrections administrator who oversees the facility at Clarinda and handled the contract negotiations.
The Iowa Supreme Court is in the midst of reviewing a lawsuit that challenges Gov. Terry Branstad’s decision last year to close the institute along with a facility in Mount Pleasant in southeast Iowa. The lawsuit, filed by the president of Iowa’s largest public employees union and two dozen Democratic lawmakers, claims Branstad’s veto that defunded the institutes was illegal because state law requires the operation of the four institutes. The centers in Cherokee and Independence remain open.
A state attorney for Branstad has emphasized the governor’s veto authority regarding state appropriations.
The lawmakers and Danny Homan, president of Iowa Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, want the closed institutes to reopen. Their attorneys reiterated that point Sept. 14, following a hearing where justices asked questions about the case.
Mark Hedberg, one of the attorneys, said he didn’t know the closed space at the Clarinda facility would soon be rented out. He argued that if both facilities are ordered to be reopened, it would be up to the state to sort out the potentially complicated logistics of rehiring staff, bringing back patients and restocking the spaces.
“They’re the ones that caused the problem and if they’re ordered to open them back up, they’re the ones that are going to have to solve it,” he said. “They can’t benefit from their own wrongdoing.”
Even before the institute closed in Clarinda, part of the facility was used for other services, including work areas for inmates from the nearby state prison and dormitory space for at-risk youth from a local academy. Zion Recovery Services has also used some space to house men for residential treatment services. The new lease will expand Zion’s residential services to women by moving into space previously used to treat mental health patients, Baker said.
Messages left for Zion were not returned Friday.
The facility in Mount Pleasant, which is also on the same campus as a state prison, remains empty, according to Sen. Rich Taylor, a Democrat whose district includes Mount Pleasant. Amy Lorentzen McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, said there are no immediate plans for anyone to use the space. She emphasized the campus remains busy because of the prison.
Officials and community leaders near both buildings said there would be logistical issues if either facility reverted to their former purpose. Aside from the pending leasing plans, state officials are preparing to sell furniture and other inventory from the building at Clarinda. The items are now stored in several rooms at the building and will be cataloged in October for a future online auction.
Furniture and other inventory at the Mount Pleasant facility have been removed, according to McCoy.
Taylor, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he recognizes the work it would take if the Iowa Supreme Court rules the institutes must be reopened. He compared to situation in Mount Pleasant with responding to a tornado.
“If a tornado would have taken the building down and we needed the facility, we would have rebuilt,” he said. “This is basically what happened. A tornado took the building down and the law says it shall be there. If we prevail in the lawsuit, I’m of the position that we have to rebuild.”