Karen Plaza was among 100 Rocky Hill residents, town leaders and correction officers who gathered outside the Capitol Wednesday to protest the state's plan to use a private nursing home to provide long-term care for prisoners and mental patients.
Reading from a prepared speech, her words cut through the frigid noontime chill.
"We are here because this administration and iCare/Secure Care and their other aliases are pushing, and in favor of placing convicts [murderers, rapists, molesters, burglars, etc] and the mentally ill into a convalescent home built for the frail elderly and people needing rehab.
"These people were not convicted because they received too many traffic tickets or parking fines. They are criminals,'' said Plaza whose Gilbert Avenue home is about a mile from the planned facility at 60 West St. in Rocky Hill.
Plaza, who described herself as a "simple resident,'' was one of several speakers who charged that the Malloy administration's plan to reduce institutional care costs threatened public safety.
"The state wants to save money at the risk of our children's safety,'' said Nicole Crawford, a West Street resident and a co-organizer of the rally.
Another resident, Jesse Colucci of Old Main Street, questioned why the state would seek federal Medicaid reimbursements to care for prisoners.
Those dollars "should be spent on our most needy citizens and on programs that prevent future tragedies, not on convicted felons who'll get an early release from prison," he said.
After the impassioned speeches and obligatory chants — "Just Say No, Just Say No'' —- Rep. Antonio "Tony" Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, led the participants inside to the office of Gov. Dannel Malloy, where petitions containing some 4,000 signatures were dropped off. Malloy was not in the office.
The State of Connecticut began developing plans in 2011 to move very sick and terminally ill patients into private nursing homes.
Three state agencies, led by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, were involved in soliciting bids and selecting and negotiating with the vendor. A final contract was signed Jan. 30, and the state had hoped to start moving patients into the 95-bed facility as early as this month.
The timetable was interrupted by a lawsuit filed by Rocky Hill in December seeking a permanent injunction against the facility's operator, iCare Management LLC, and its property arm, SecureCare Realty LLC.
A hearing was held Feb. 5 on the town's request for a temporary restraining order preventing the facility from opening. The defendants oppose the order and want the suit dismissed. Superior Court Judge Antonio C. Robaina has yet to rule.
Over the past week, the town and the neighborhood stepped up the legal pressure.
On Feb. 14, the town asked Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers for certification to lodge a public interest appeal challenging Robaina's decision not to issue an immediate ruling that preserves the status quo. The town claims it would suffer "irreparable harm'' should the prison transfers begin.
On Wednesday, Town Attorney Morris B. Borea filed a second lawsuit in Superior Court to prevent Public Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen from relicensing the nursing home.
The home, opened in 1967 was last licensed in 2008. The license was not renewed and expired in August after a court-appointed received ordered the facility closed.
The town argues that for the license to be issued, the facility must first comply with local zoning regulations. Those regulations prohibit the operation of a prison in a residential area, and the town maintains the nursing home would function as a penal facility, Borea said.
Unlike the earlier lawsuit, Wednesday's action makes the State of Connecticut a party to the dispute, not just an interested spectator.
A group of six nearby property owners also announced Wednesday they will file their own suit this week.
They claim the proposed use of the nursing home would negatively impact their property rights and the value of their homes, according to their attorney, Kevin P. Walsh of Williams, Walsh & O'Connor LLC of North Haven.
Michael Lawlor, the administration's undersecretary for criminal justice, disputed the claim that the facility posed any risk to the community.
"60 West is a nursing home, not a prison. Patients at this nursing home will meet both state and federal guidelines for nursing home care. Any patient who is violent or a risk to the community will be screened out and not permitted to receive care at this facility,'' Lawlor said in a statement.
"We are confident that this nursing home will provide appropriate care and that it will not pose a risk to the neighboring community. The operator has an excellent record of providing this type of skilled nursing home care elsewhere in Connecticut and throughout New England."
Guerrera and Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, are cosponsoring a bill before the Public Health Committee that would prevent private nursing homes from accepting state inmates or mental patients without prior local approval.
The issue transcends Rocky Hill issue, opponents say.
"Malloy is looking for another 500 beds. If this administration succeeds in circumventing Rocky Hill's planning and zoning laws, your town will also be circumvented. You may be getting one of these home in your area in the near future,'' Plaza said.