Investigation: State director decided long ago to scrap Caro Center project
(4/5/2019) - Emails between state officials give a look at reasons why construction stopped on the $115 million project to replace the Caro Center psychiatric hospital.
Last October, former Gov. Rick Snyder participated in a groundbreaking to start construction on a brand new psychiatric hospital in Caro with promises of more than 300 jobs.
But now, it looks like those promises may be broken after the state stopped construction on the hospital last month. A consultant hired by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is helping decide whether it should proceed or move to another location.
Emails between officials in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration that ABC12 obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show some reasons for halting the project.
The first signs of trouble for the project, which involves Tuscola County's second largest employer, appeared in a transition briefing between the outgoing Snyder administration and incoming Whitmer administration.
The State Budget Office recommended halting the project for further review because of concerns over staffing at the existing hospital, the fact that Caro is a rural area and an unresolved water line issue.
The state has already spent $3 million on demolition and other work at the site.
In January, new Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon held a meeting and the following day Andrea Taverna, deputy cabinet secretary for Whitmer, emailed state officials recapping the meeting. She wrote that, "Secretary Gordon increasingly believes that closing Caro entirely is the correct path forward."
Within weeks, Gordon visited the existing Caro Center and sent an email to state officials, including Whitmer aides and the budget department.
"We don't want to build another facility there," he wrote.
He went on to say the leading idea is to expand the Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Saline and build a smaller facility in a better location than Caro.
In the same email, Gordon discussed forming a commission "that would help us get the right answer, building support for that answer, and perhaps hold off the legislature from doing anything rash."
Gordon emailed Taverna and other state officials the next month saying the idea of forming a commission had been scrapped and a consultant would be hired to review plans to build in Caro, a decision the emails indicate had already been made.
The consultant was to report his or her findings by the end of June. Whitmer announced in March the project would be delayed.
State Rep. Phil Green, a Republican who represents Tuscola County, learned of the emails from ABC12 and expressed anger at what they show.
"It is not surprising that the decision regarding the Caro Center would have already been made," he said. "What is surprising to me is the amount of dishonesty and conniving that went into making the announcement."
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released a statement saying the consultant hired to study the project's future is not aware of Gordon's conclusion to move it from Caro.
"Gordon has communicated to the consultants, as recently as Thursday, that their only job is to study the history and the facts and to propose the best location for the residents of Michigan, including the Thumb. They were not even informed of the opinion expressed in that email, and they certainly were not asked to act upon that opinion," the statement says.
Whitmer's office did not return messages seeking comment about the project.
State Rep. Phil Green of Millington, whose district covers Tuscola County, sent this message in response to the emails from within the Whitmer administration:
“It is not surprising that the decision regarding the Caro Center would have already been made. What is surprising to me is the amount of dishonesty and conniving that went into making the announcement. I stated in a meeting with DHHS and DTMB that it sounded like “Their mind was already made up and it would not be confused with facts.” That they had to connive and come up with this elaborate plan to “do another study” in order to come to the conclusion they have already made is the epitome of dishonesty and fiscally irresponsible. I hope Governor Whitmer will exhibit leadership and get this department under control. If leadership will lie to the members of the legislature and the residents of the State of Michigan, they will also lie to her. This department cannot be trusted.”