Photo courtesy of DCF's web site

(Updated 4:50 p.m.) Attorney General Richard Blumenthal opined Tuesday afternoon that Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell lacks the constitutional authority to close a treatment facility for adolescent boys in Hamden.

Rell planned to close High Meadows, which is a 42-bed residential treatment facility run by the Department of Children and Families, to save the state money.

Rell may be able to reduce the facility’s budget by five percent, but Blumenthal said she has no constitutional authority to close the facility. 

“Because the legislature clearly intended High Meadows to remain open, the governor lacks the authority to close it or seek termination of its certificate of need,” Blumenthal said in a press release.

“We are thrilled, but not surprised by the Attorney General’s opinion,” Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for SEIU District 1199, said Tuesday.

“It had been clear all along that it was the legislature’s intent to keep it open,” she said.

The opinion comes just days before the Office of Health Care Access hearing on the closure of the facility. In September the hearing on the closure was postponed to give the union workers and parents time to comment on the proposal.

Chernoff said the opinion is significant because it also covers the proposed closure of Cedarcrest, a psychiatric hospital in Newington, and two drug treatment facilities.

“Governor Rell’s attempt to close this facility despite the General Assembly’s provision of funding to maintain these essential services was very troubling, inasmuch as it was a clear overreach of her executive power, in much the same way as the governor recently and wrongly sought to use her line-item veto power in a budget she did not sign,” Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Tuesday afternoon. “Today’s decision is an important clarification of the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.”

By closing High Meadows the state would save $6 million in operating costs and $11 million in capital costs, Gary Kleeblatt, spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, has said.

However, Kleeblatt said that’s not the entire reason behind the agency’s desire to close the facility. He said the reality is the “service system for children with complex needs has really changed a lot.”

Many more at-home and community-based services for these children exist and there’s less of a need for residential treatment facilities, Kleeblatt said.

Following an event in New Haven Tuesday afternoon, Rell said she had the Office of Policy and Management review Blumenthal’s decision. She said she doesn’t think Blumenthal’s interpretation is correct, but she would wait to see what her budget office had to say before making a final decision in the matter.

“This opinion represents a fundamental misreading of the budget act and ignores important provisions relevant to the question,” Rell’s Budget Secretary Robert Genuario wrote in this three-page letter. “There is no caselaw supporting use of ‘legislative intent’ to dictate what constitutes ‘fully funding’ a line item.”

“To elevate the opinions of individual legislators to the level of statutory law without the requirement of putting those opinions to the vote of the legislature and subjecting those enactments to the approval or disapproval of the Governor is to subvert the Governor’s constitutional powers,” Genuario wrote.

He said the bill the legislature passed and Rell vetoed would have given them the authority to keep the facility open, but they have failed to override that veto.

“To issue this opinion is to attempt to reverse this veto without putting the veto to an override vote in the General Assembly,” Genuario wrote. He maintained that the governor does have to power to close the facility.

Earlier Tuesday afternoon Rell announced $15 million in bond funds will be allocated later this week for a girls-only DCF facility, which will be built in Bridgeport.

Leonard Honeyman contributed to this report from New Haven