Mayor Marion Barry, accompanied by high-level District officials, circled St. Elizabeths mental hospital three times in a police helicopter yesterday before landing for a ground tour of the Southeast Washington facility, which the city will take over in 1987.
Barry said the visit was to familiarize officials with the layout of the 336-acre hospital and to allay "anxieties" among hospital staff members concerned about the transfer of St. Elizabeths from federal to District jurisdiction, which Congress ordered last year.
"There is a lot of anxiety about what is going to happen to the program here and to the hospital," Barry said while standing in Center Building, a feudal looking structure built in 1855. "I am going to do all I can to make sure [the final takeover plan] is ready."
The unusual helicopter overflight gave District officials a chance to form an impression of the sprawling campus, split in the middle by Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, according to Charles Seigel, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Human Services. The mayor has used a police helicopter several times for trips to Dulles International Airport, the District's Lorton prison complex in Fairfax County and one or two other sites outside the city, said Annette Samuels, Barry's press secretary.
The city released a draft plan this week on the transfer of the hospital to the city that calls for a reduction of more than 1,000 persons from St. Elizabeths' current work force of 3,348. But Barry noted that about 1,000 workers are eligible for early retirement and others could be absorbed by other agencies of the District government.
"It is the responsibility of the federal government to be sure that nobody loses a job out here," Barry said. Staff members "shouldn't be kicked out just because we are reorganizing."
The mayor was flanked by Virginia C. Fleming, director of the D.C. Mental Health System Reogranization Office, which forumulated the transfer plan; David Rivers, director of the Human Services Department, and Curtis McClinton, deputy mayor for economic development.
Also touring the hospital campus were City Council members Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8), whose ward includes the hospital, and Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), chairman of the Human Services Committee, which oversees mental health progams.
Barry did not enter any of the hospital's wards because St. Elizabeths security regulations would have barred the mayor's bodyguards from carrying weapons inside.
The reorganization plan, which calls for a reduction in hospital patients from 1,600 to 800 by 1988, envisions a consolidation of psychiatric facilities in the newer section of the complex on the east side of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. District officials have preliminary plans to encourage economic development of the west side. Those plans must be approved by Congress.
Barry said a university had expressed interest in the hospital site, but he did not identify the school. Also, referring to a broad promontory on the west campus, Barry said, "I am sure a developer would like to put up some housing there overlooking our city."
Rolark said that development of the west side would be helpful to Ward 8 but said she would fight "to the bitter end" any inequitable placement of group homes for deinsitutionalized mental patients in her ward.
Fleming acknowledged that the plan to transfer inpatients to community-based facilities could be a "sticking point" but said the city would find a solution to the problem. Barry told reporters that city residents must "be prepared to absorb those persons who have been deemed by psychiatrists to be ready to go into the community."
"They should not be cast off as lepers -- not to be touched," the mayor added.
Public hearings on the transfer plan are scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday at Martin Luther King Jr. Library, 901 G St. NW, and 2 to 8 p.m. Nov. 21 at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, 3000 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.