"Andy LaBarre and Jerry Clayton are geniuses!" exclaims Ann Arbor councilmember Chip Smith
From the December, 2017 issue
Smith, who himself narrowly won reelection in the Fifth Ward (Up Front, p. 9), wasn't the only observer stunned that the county's mental health and police services millage was approved by a landslide in November. Though LaBarre himself put its chances at no better than fifty-fifty, it passed with 64 percent support.
"I was amazed at the margin," says LaBarre, the Ann Arbor county commissioner who organized the yes campaign. "It passed in every [commission] district and in every precinct in every city and village. It did do better in urban areas than rural areas, but it had broader appeal than I was expecting."
Conceived by Clayton, the 1-mill tax will both underwrite his department's police patrols out-county and fund interventions for people with mental health issues who currently wind up in his jail. Concern that the combination might be too complicated for voters to understand was magnified by a late and underfunded pro-millage campaign--as of early November, supporters reported raising just $6,000.
County clerk Larry Kestenbaum thinks national events may explain why it passed so decisively. "The vote took place in the wake of two highly publicized mass shootings," he emails. "National conservative political figures pointed to mental health as the problem or solution. They might as well have been endorsing the Washtenaw County millage."
Political consultant Alex Yerkey, who ran the Yes campaign, sees other explanations. "It's also entirely possible that people were primed to vote for this because [of] issues like the opioid epidemic and uptick in youth suicides," he emails. "But I think compassion and anti-Trump sentiment are big reasons why people came out in the numbers we saw."
Voters renewed the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's special education millage even more decisively, 74 percent voting yes.
"We looked at a comparison with 2011, the last time it was up for renewal, and [the margin] was within a couple percentage points," says WISD superintendent Scott Menzel. "But a lot more votes were cast this year,
almost 10,000 more. I suspect it's because we had the countywide millage plus other millages and the council races that helped turnout."
Sheriff Clayton says he thought running the two proposals in the same election "was going to hurt. A lot of people told me they'd do one but not the other." He too was surprised at the results, especially in the rural townships--though they didn't all pass it, it did better than expected. "Dexter Township voted for it, [even though] their supervisor came out against it."
Community Mental Health director Trish Cortes says mental health funding will be used for "crisis, stabilization, prevention, and jail services. There is a need for better crisis interventions. Right now people are landing in emergency rooms or jails. There's also a need for more [work] around prevention, particularly youth suicide."
Instead of jail, Cortes says "there is interest in having deputies bring [people with mental health issues] to a crisis center for stabilization and evaluation, which can take up to forty-eight hours." Where that might be remains to be determined. "It might not be necessary to build something," she says. "There are locations that could serve as a crisis center."
It will also restore services to people who lost them with recent state funding cuts. "Community Mental Health's population is based on insurance status," LaBarre says, "and this will help the 5,000 people currently on the rolls and the 350 that were removed from them with the cuts from the state."
After this signal success will the sheriff run again in 2020? "I plan on it," says Clayton. As for LaBarre, he's up for re-election next year--and is eyeing the state legislature in 2020.
[Originally published in December, 2017.]
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