Limestone County leaders are concerned about the fate of their largest employer as state officials propose to close nearly half of Texas’ residential institutions for the mentally disabled.

The Mexia State-Supported Living Center is among 13 facilities in the state system that the Sunset Advisory Commission is proposing to reform. The agency’s staff last week recommended closing six facilities, but did not specify which ones except for the troubled Austin center.

The Mexia center has 342 residents from a 12-county area, which includes Waco. It employs 1,622 people in a county of about 23,300.

“Closing it would be a huge economic impact on Mexia,” said Linda Archibald, president of the Mexia Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a tremendous part of our economy. . . . We have fought for it before and we will fight for its existence again.”

The Sunset Commission, which includes members of the Texas House and Senate, periodically reviews other state agencies and recommends whether they should be eliminated or scaled back.

The new report sharply criticizes the system of living centers run by the Department of Aging and Disability Services, citing “skyrocketing costs” and a “questionable quality of care.” The state spends $661.9 million a year to serve an institutionalized population of about 3,650. Consolidating the facilities and sending many of the disabled to community-based group homes could save Texas $148.1 million a year by 2023, the report says.

“With the costs to taxpayers growing unsustainably, the State must close some of the most problematic centers, while acknowledging the vulnerable nature of the residents and the emotions involved,” the reports says.

The Sunset Commission will hold a public hearing June 24 and 25 at the State Capitol and will make its final recommendation in mid-August for the 2015 legislative session.

Commission staff said a task force would be set up to determine which of the state-supported living facilities should be closed.

Limestone County Judge Daniel Burkeen said he will be watching the situation closely, but he believes Mexia’s facility is safe from closure.

“I don’t see it as a serious threat,” he said.

Forensic facility

The Mexia center, formerly known as the Mexia State School, was designated several years ago as the “forensic” facility in the system, meaning it would take clients that had been accused of a crime but deemed incompetent to stand trial.

Those clients comprise nearly two-thirds of the Mexia facility’s population.

“They have to have a designated facility for serious forensic cases,” Burkeen said. “If it’s not (Mexia), they would have to completely revamp the system. I think we’ll be OK. It’s working in Mexia. It’s central in the state. Nowhere is located in any better place than we are.”

The high-need, high-risk nature of the Mexia facility means that its staff-to-client ratio and budget are among the highest in the system. The 2013 budget for the facility was $63.7 million.

Meanwhile, the state report shows that Mexia’s facility, which is about 70 years old, needs some $12 million in repairs.

And as with all the facilities in the system, the Mexia center has a long way to go to make operational reforms demanded by federal officials.

In a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009, the state agreed to make improvements to medical services, psychiatric care, nursing care, use of restraint, and training program at all 13 facilities. The report shows that the Mexia facility has met 28 percent of those requirements, which puts it in the middle of the pack for progress.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who sits on the Sunset Advisory Committee and represents Limestone County in the Senate, said he welcomes the scrutiny of the system of care for disabled residents.

“Since 2003, the population of our state-supported living centers has declined from over 5,000 to around 3,600 today,” he said in an email response for this story. “As more of our citizens with intellectual and development disabilities have been able to receive high-quality services in a community-based setting, I think it’s appropriate for the state to have a serious discussion about the number of state-run institutions needed to adequately serve our citizens.”

Recommended for you