Mental Health Complex stays on city’s west side

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  • A north-side Milwaukee hospital is in danger of closing.
  • A County Board vote eliminated the idea of the hospital adding a Mental Health Complex.

A proposed plan to move the Mental Health Complex from Watertown Plank Road into St. Michael's Hospital on Villard Avenue ended last Thursday. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted down the idea in a 13-6 vote.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has tried unsuccessfully for more than two years to move the complex into a portion of the renovated St. Michael's. This would have saved new building costs and been affordable to taxpayers, Walker said.

According to a press release, Walker said at this stage the county must consolidate the complex at its current site and budget capital project funds to remodel the existing structure.

"In light of the action of the County Board, this is the only option for the county in the foreseeable future," Walker said. "Milwaukee County just cannot afford to build a new $100 million building."

Walker's press release said St. Michael's is in danger of closing due to a reduced number of patients, staff and resources. Also, this is the second vote by the board to strike down the proposal, having also been declined in September 2008 in an 11-8 vote.

Fran McLaughlin, director of communications for the County Executive's Office, said options were limited after this second vote. She said costs were not accurately measured for the project.

McLaughlin said in 2006, Walker first initiated the proposal after parent company Wheaton Franciscan Health Care of Wisconsin announced future closures of the St. Michael's emergency room and other departments.

"Wheaton's options were to demolish the site or lease it to Milwaukee County," McLaughlin said. "They did not take into account infrastructure, parking and architectural renderings, which are large parts of costs."

She said the hospital's financial strains began when St. Michael's Emergency Room, Inpatient Behavioral Health Unit, Medical/Surgical and Intensive Care Units were closed in June 2006. Since then, Wheaton has spent $2.5 million annually on upkeep of St. Michael's.

Wheaton cited large financial losses and declining patient numbers as a reason for cutting these facilities off. Roughly one-third of the hospital's 722 employees were transferred to other Wheaton facilities in southeastern Wisconsin.

Anne Ballentine, a spokeswoman for Wheaton Franciscan, said concerted efforts to find a suitable buyer or taker for St. Michael's have failed after almost three years of trying.

"In the past, we were indicating to demolish the building if there was no interested party," Ballentine said. "This is after nearly three years of working with the county but also exploring other options to see if anyone was interested in buying it, or at this stage just having it."

Ballentine said the services the facility still has are likely to move by the summer. She also said Wheaton does not know when it will be demolished, given the current economic climate.

Lori Holly, a spokeswoman from the St. Joseph's branch of Wheaton Franciscan, where some employees were transferred, said Wheaton struggled for new options for St. Michael's.

"There are still some services and offices on sight there, but it's not a hospital," Holly said. "We were waiting on decisions from the Milwaukee County Board before addressing how to move forward."

Weas Development Co. and St. Michael's were hoping to achieve a long-term lease to expand the facility to include county psychiatric patients as part of the refurbished facility. The proposal would have cost over $100 million, according to McLaughlin.

"In their mind, they aren't saying it will cost $100 million, but it will exceed this plan," she said. "They don't have another plan. When it comes down to it, the county doesn't have the funds for it. It is a beautiful facility and a shame it was turned down."

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