The process of phasing out the Southbury Training School, a state group home for people with intellectual disabilities, would likely take a number of years, newly-minted Commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services Terry Macy told the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee Friday.

With 430 patients, Southbury Training School represents the last institution of its size in New England, he said. That number is down significantly from its peak of 1,800 patients, which Macy said was many years ago.

In 1986 the legislature passed statutes dictating that no new patients be admitted into the facility and patient population has been steadily declining since. Operating well below capacity, the school has been a frequent target of legislators looking to trim fat around the state’s expenses.

There are around 1,400 employees at the training school, made up of full time, part time and consulting positions. Those positions range from medical jobs to residential staff and facility support services.

In November, a bi-partisan commission tasked with finding ways to streamline government and increase its efficiency passed a recommendation that a working group be established to determine whether the facility’s staff be reduced.

But it was one of only two recommendations that didn’t receive the unanimous support of the commission.

Michael Cicchetti, then-Deputy Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management pointed out that disrupting the training school may have negative effects, as the average age of the residents of that home is 62.

“Many of them have been there for their entire adult life. I’m not sure that is the best option at this point,” he said of moving staff familiar with the residents from that facility.

On Friday Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, reiterated those concerns.

“There are a number of people who are there now, and their families, who are very concerned about the future and concerned that those residents may not be amenable to a change in setting and want to live out their days there,” he said.

Macy said he would like to see any transition for those residents happen in a thoughtful and purposeful way. The department is operating under a federal court settlement that determined the best method would be to present opportunities for community placement to the facility’s residents, he said.

The settlement recommends that teams from Southbury be assembled to determine the best placement for each individual.

“I would expect that that will take a matter of years before that process goes forward and everybody gets their opportunity to find out what is available in the community,” he said.

One of the problems with trying to transition the residents is few have had the opportunity to get out and visit possible alternatives, he said.

“The plan is to get private providers to visit the campus and to share what they have with the people living there and their families,” he said.

Macy said the training school is probably not the most appropriate setting for many of the patients living there. And responses from residents to the prospect of moving out and into a different setting have been more positive than he said he would have imagined.

In his 27 years in the field, Macy said he’s learned that it’s important that people have informed choices about where they live and receive their care.

“You can’t say that people love living at Southbury when Southbury is the only option they have ever been shown. If you have an informed choice, you the ability to make a meaningful decision about where else you may want to live and with whom,” he said.

Outside the hearing room Macy said the future of training school was an area where the state needed to proceed very cautiously.

“Too often it becomes a contest with people saying ‘close it tomorrow,’” he said.

The department’s primary consideration should be to the needs of the residents, he said, as well as their families and the staff of the facility.

The committee confirmed Macy following his testimony.