BOULDER – When Sarah Layng was younger she worked as a waitress at a Boulder restaurant.
She remembers clients from the Montana Developmental Center were sometimes her customers.
"We always felt they were part of the community," said Layng, who is now president of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. "We know a lot of people who work there. They are our friends and neighbors and classmates."
Lee Hiltz was a licensed practical nurse at Montana Developmental Center for two years.
"When I worked there, I loved the people I took care of," she said.
However, she said, she had her arm broken once and jaw broken twice by clients.
"When you got hit there, you really got hit," she said recently as she and her husband, Chris, waited for their lunch at The River Pizza and Sub Restaurant on the town's Main Street.
She'd like to see the people stay.
Layng and Hiltz are among some of Boulder's 1,200 residents who said they are now feeling anger, confusion and resentment toward the state over the closure of the center.
In May, Gov. Steve Bullock signed Senate Bill 411, sponsored by Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, to close MDC and move the 52 people with severe intellectual disabilities, mental health issues and personality disorders to community-based settings by June 30, 2017.
SB 411 stipulates that courts cannot send new clients to the facility after Dec. 31, and most of the residents are to be moved out.
Proponents say years of assault and neglect left the state with no other option than to close the Boulder facility, which employs nearly 250 people. The Montana Department of Justice substantiated 74 incidents of abuse in 15 months at the center. A 2015 report by Disability Rights Montana claimed that one-third of 50 residents over the course of the reporting period of October 2013 until November of 2014 were mistreated, abused or neglected by staff members at MDC.
Residents and others don't deny problems existed, but they also note the problems occur at other facilities and are written off as isolated incidents.
Those who want the center to stay open say closure is premature and that SB 411 was rushed through the 2015 Legislature.
"It was one of the worst bills passed in the last Legislature," said Eric Feaver, president of the state employee union MEA-MFT. "It won't be cheaper to privatize."
It is Montana's only residential facility for people with developmental disabilities that provides 24-hour care for those with the most severe behaviors or severe self-help deficits, state officials said.
At one time the facility, founded in 1889 as the Montana Deaf and Dumb Asylum, had nearly 1,000 residents. That year, 50,000 acres were granted to start the facility.
To deal with the closing, the state created the Montana Developmental Center Transition Planning Advisory Council. It had its first meeting in June and will create a plan over the next 18 months. While the Jefferson County commissioners have a seat at the table, the bill did not stipulate the town of Boulder be represented. The 11-member panel includes: the governor's health policy adviser, representatives from the Department of Public Health and Human Services, the office of budget and program planning, community mental health centers and a provider of community-based services.
Other members include a representative of the state protection and advocacy program for people with developmental disabilities, two family members or guardians of people committed to the Montana Developmental Center, someone from the Montana developmental center workforce, a Jefferson County commissioner, two state senators and a member of the Montana council on developmental disabilities.
The group has recommended the state keep the Assessment and Stabilization Unit open, which would handle about 12 patients. No action has been taken on that recommendation, nor do officials know at this time how many jobs it would keep. But even that recommendation has sparked debate among the panel.
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, who sits on the committee, said one of the committee's charges is to look at future uses for the facility.
She said it was deliberately written into the law that the committee look at new uses for the facility, but added those discussions have not started yet.
"We will get there," she said.
"Boulder is a cute and quaint and charming community," Dunwell said. "I sure as heck can understand (Boulder's) frustration ... and why they feel the heart of their community is being ripped out."
She added that the center has been "the lifeblood of community for years and years."
"If I worked at the facility and if my mom and dad had worked at the facility, I would feel like I was losing a part of my life," she said. "It's important to make sure it's not a loss of livelihood. I get it, and I think the committee totally gets it. This is a tough challenge all around."
State Budget Director Dan Villa, who chairs the meetings, said the state is keenly aware of the potential impact on Boulder. The state also is exploring all options for new uses for the facility.
New homes are already being found for some clients as the state announced in January that 21 clients will be moved by August to homes operated by AWARE Inc. Contract costs to cover the first 21 clients is $5.2 million.
How the closure will affect Boulder is unknown at this point, but town officials estimate that nearly a third of the facility's employees live in Boulder. They have children in the local schools. They, along with other workers who likely commute from Boulder or Helena, also shop, eat at restaurants and buy other goods and services.
Luke Vossler, who, with his wife, Lisa, owns L&P Grocery on the town's Main Street, said the center buys some of its groceries through him. If it closes up altogether, he figures he will lose $65,000 to $80,000 a year.
On Feb. 9, he ordered 130 cases of food and beverage for MDC. Those items include Gatorade, pudding cups and Eggo Waffles.
Vossler, who employs 14 to 20 people depending on the season, also said he would lose the customer base of MDC employees who live in Helena and Butte who stop at his store on their way home.
"It's definitely going to impact me, but more than that it will impact Boulder, and that is the problem," he said.
Jefferson County Commissioner Bob Mullen describes the closure as a "devastating blow to the community."
"They're pretty good jobs," he said. "I do not know what we'll replace them with in Jefferson County."
The area's economy has already been hit hard, he said. In September, the Golden Sunlight Mine 40 miles away in Whitehall laid off about 140 people.
And Mullen, like some others in the community, said the 18-month deadline set to close the facility is not enough time.
"We are doing this much quicker than we should have," he said. "There wasn't nearly enough planning done to accommodate a change this big.
"We are working against a time clock and sometimes that does not lead to making the best decisions."
When the center closes or perhaps downsizes, businesses will see a reduction in sales. Housing and real estate will take a hit and school enrollment will decline, Mullen said.
"From top to bottom, it will be a pretty devastating effect."
The town has started the Boulder Transition Advisory Council to brace for when the development center's doors close, Mayor Gary Craft said.
"It's a community-wide problem and it would be nice if we get input from everybody involved," he said.
The panel was set up through the Jefferson Local Development Corp., a nonprofit board of 12 business people who wanted to help Boulder through the transition, said Tom Harrington, an extension agent through Montana State University. He oversees the meetings.
He said there were no Boulder representatives named to the state's transitional council, so this was a way for the citizenry to get involved.
One of its goals is to mitigate the impact of the MDC on the community, one of those being a reduction in water and sewer use.
The state recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the city in which it will pay for water and sewer fees for five years after the city made nearly $4 million in water and sewer improvements. Craft said he had hoped to get them to pay for 20 years, which was the length of the loan.
Garry Pace, the county superintendent of schools, said he expects a residual effect on schools once the facility closes.
"This will absolutely change the feel of the town," he said.
Pace said not all of the center's employees live in Boulder, but if 30 to 40 students are removed from elementary schools, it will have an impact.
Maria Pace, Garry Pace's daughter and Boulder Elementary School superintendent, said enrollment actually has increased since news surfaced of the center's closing. It was at 151 students at the beginning of the school year and is now 175.
"It was just the opposite of what I predicted," she said.
Pace said her school board has been "proactive," keeping the issue on the agenda.
"We've just tried to keep the conversation current," she said.
Tim Norbeck, superintendent of the Jefferson High School District, said he did not expect a huge student loss, but said he was more concerned about the impact on the district's water and sewer fees if the center closes.
Greg Hughes, who owns The River Pizza and Subs Restaurant, said the state has to take some responsibility for what will happen to Boulder.
"If they want to take a business out of this town, then the state should be responsible for looking at the economical impact and replacing it with something as well," he said, adding people from the center eat at his restaurant and order a lot of pizza deliveries as well. "It's politics; there is no other word to sum this up."
Hughes accused Caferro, the author of SB 411, of having a conflict of interest. During the 2015 legislative session, it was reported that Caferro works for Arc Montana, an advocacy arm of AWARE Inc., a group that was the only bidder to house 21 adults who will leave the center in Boulder eventually. Caferro told colleagues she wouldn't benefit from the bill's passage.
Hughes said he still believes it's a conflict of interest and that Caferro "exploited an opportunity" to secure her future.
Caferro has denied those allegations.
In a February interview with the Tribune, she said Montana has a citizen Legislature, not a professional one, and legislators rely on each other for expertise, such as Caferro's work advocating for people with developmental disabilities, mental illness and other issues.
Feaver said "you can take it to the bank" that the provider will be at the 2017 legislative session telling the state the set fee is not enough.
He said the Legislature's vote was based more on emotion than reality.
"The presumption that this is where all the abuse occurs and not in the private sector is an erroneous presumption," Feaver said.
Lee Hiltz said the effect on the town will be devastating.
"It's going to hurt it," she said. "It's going to hurt it bad."
"There's not much here," Chris Hiltz said. "They will try to do some things, but it won't get far."
Mullen said his focus will be on keeping something in town.
The 52-acre Montana Developmental Center has the feeling of a community subdivision. Clean, newer group homes sit toward the entrance. Buildings near the back include the administration, a fitness center, occupational therapy department, the Assessment and Stabilization Unit, a walking trail, a recycling center and a church. There is also a multistory boarded-up training school on the campus, a reminder of the center's past.
Troy Green, a unit coordinator, lives three blocks from the campus.
Green was able to organize some of the residents into a rock 'n' roll band to play at events. They call themselves "Insanity." Green mentions with amused pride that the band performed in a talent show about a month ago and some of the band members talk about touring someday.
He said employees are aware of what is coming. And one of the duties of the state panel is to recommend help for the displaced workers.
"We know what the bill tells us," he said. "We're operating as normal and trying to get people out into the community."
Green said at the group homes the clients learn good coping skills to lead a purposeful life. Students in the group homes eat family-style dinners, learn table manners and one person a day is assigned to prepare meals for the group.
He said clients are often taken out into Boulder, such as going to restaurants.
"The community is very accepting to us as a whole," he said, adding the clients "do more in their personal life than I do in mine."
And as for the clients, "they grow on you," Green said.
Feaver said the specialness of MDC was not articulated well enough during the last legislative session.
Terry Minow, a representative of MEA-MFT, the union that represents the state workers at the center, told the state transition committee on Jan. 28 that the employees, who are professionals, are being left out of the discussions over placement. She encouraged officials to let the staff be involved.
She said SB 411 was sold to the Legislature on the premise that it would improve the lives of MDC clients.
"It would be a tragedy if the state laid off 250 well-trained, dedicated employees, devastated a community and ultimately made things worse for the people who are being served at MDC," she said.
Ellen Rae Thiel, a volunteer at The Heritage Center, a local historical society, said the developmental center has been a big part of the town. At one time it had Boy and Girl Scout groups and a ranch.
"I feel really bad for the parents and the clients now," said Thiel, who had worked at MDC as a medical records clerk and supervisor. She and Heritage Center President Nancy Alley wonder if the clients would get the same quality care elsewhere.
"I think it's sad because I don't know if the clients there fit anywhere else," Alley said.
The Rev. Lowell Bartels, who leads the Tuesday services at the nondenominational Good Shepherd Church at MDC, said he fears for the future of those in his congregation.
"We have to keep in mind that these are adult bodies with children's minds," he said, fearing where they may end up if they don't make it in the community setting. "They are going to go to jail."
"We always had Boulder in the past," Bartels said. "You can close Boulder, but please give us a safety net."
Craft, now in his seventh year as mayor, said he has tried to look at the challenge with some optimism.
"The good I see coming out of it is that we have opportunities now for the future of our community whether the facility is still here but under a different name and function," he said. "We can explore the opportunities."
Layng said Boulder is a community of survivors. And she said she feels lucky to have grown up in a town that had the MDC, saying it made her more empathetic to people with disabilities.
Lee and Chris Hiltz believe the state is making a big mistake. Lee Hiltz is not sure it's over for good.
"They'll be back," she said.
Vossler agrees that the town will survive, but not without some changes.
"Boulder is going to keep going, there's no doubt about that," he said. "But it won't be the same.
"Boulder has been in the business of caring for people with disabilities as a way of life for more than 100 years," Vossler said. "It will be a sad day when it's gone. We've heard some of the negative remarks of having a mental disability facility in our town, but Boulder kind of embraced it, and it will be missed."