HONOLULU (KHON2) — A long-awaited secure facility for court-appointed mental patients is ready to open, but a labor dispute is putting opening day in limbo.

The Hawaii State Hospital has needed the forensic building for decades, but workers say they aren’t prepared to work there. The state says they’ve been getting ready for years.

The gleaming new state hospital building is part jail, part hospital. Those who are court-appointed here will still be termed patients, not inmates, even though they end up there after committing often violent crimes.

“It was designed so that you have better lines of sight, so that you have better security protocols,” explained Eddie Mersereau, Department of Health Deputy Director for Behavioral Health, “so that there’s a lot more ability to make sure we know where people are at all times.”

That includes people like Randall Saito, who had easily escaped from the existing and aging facility at the Hawaii State Hospital campus, which lacks what’s called “forensic” buildings. The nearly $160 million new facility is the culmination of decades of planning.

“The building has come in pretty much on time and under budget,” Mersereau said.

But the state’s largest public worker union says the state didn’t talk to them enough about how work will change in a more prison-like building.

“Security is probably the first and foremost concern that the staff has, in addition to that is just training,” said Randy Perreira of HGEA. “This project really has been in the works for about three years, and there was ample time for the hospital to begin some discussion — or to use the official term ‘consultation’ — with us over some of the necessary changes.”

Staff started to get nervous when they were told earlier this spring that opening day would come as soon as the keys were handed over.

“The facility, as we understand, was scheduled to be opened up on May 1,” Perreira said, “and we were essentially told by the state to take it or leave it.”

The union filed a prohibited practices complaint with the state labor board over it, and both sides say they won. The state points out the case was dismissed. The union says it was only dismissed because the state agreed, after the complaint, to start consulting.

“I’m not in a position to tell you how long that might take,” Perreira said. “We’re certainly wanting to address these issues right away because our members don’t object to the fact that they’ll all be working in new facility, but they clearly want to do so in a safe way not only for themselves, but for the patients as well.”

The state says they’ve kept workers in the loop all along, getting staff input in the early design years, and again as recently as March as they got early access to the building ahead of getting the keys turned over officially on April 1.

“We actually have already started to have employees come through the building, take tours of the building. We asked them for their concerns and their comments about the building,” Mersereau said, “so from our perspective, we feel that we have done and have initiated that. I think it’s unfortunate that some things may have got lost in translation. It’s a beautiful facility, and it’s 100 times safer.”

For such a huge project to sit empty any longer than necessary is a concern especially as places like OCCC are overfilled, and security at the rest of the Kaneohe campus is always top-of-mind for the community.

“We are talking about an important facility, very expensive, but that will serve a very important and long-awaited need,” Perreira said. “Now they’re going to have to start making excuses to legislators for having sunk all the money into the facility, but they’re not able to move quickly.”

Key lawmakers say it’s now on the right track as long as both sides are talking.

“Whenever we spend taxpayers’ dollars, we want to make sure that it’s efficient, and there’s no waste,” said Rep. Ryan Yamane, chair of the House Health Committee. “So of course we would want the building, if available, to open as soon as possible. However, because of the status or the situation regarding the state hospital, we want to make sure the staff are trained, there’s a transition period, and everybody’s comfortable.”

Always Investigating asked, what’s their opening date at this point? The state tells says they’re hoping within 90 days.

“The concept of running a unit is different from the reality of running a unit,” Mersereau said, “so we’re going to take it really, really deliberately, and make sure that that we do it in a way that makes that everybody’s aware of what we need to do.”

With the new facility, there’s space to add 144 more patients, some possibly transferred and court ordered from an overcrowded OCCC. It also needs 115 more workers, while the state hospital is already dealing with a staff shortage. The existing campus has 600 staff positions and 214 beds prior to the expansion.