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Meltdown Averted

A political faceoff bought time to fix the county mental health budget.

by James Leonard

From the November, 2019 issue

"This has been a true crisis," says Jason Morgan, chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. In March, the board learned that its Community Mental Health unit faced a $10 million deficit in its 2019-2021 budget. By law, the board had to balance the budget--and it had to do it by the end of September.

And it looked like the fiscal crisis triggered a political stalemate. In August, the county board passed a resolution promising $2.6 million to fill part of the gap--and recommending that CMH make up the rest by cuts in administrative staff and office space.

The CMH board didn't do it. In September, they came back with a budget balanced by a much larger infusion from the county.

"They wanted $4.3 million, and we can only put in $3.1 to 3.5 million," says Morgan. "We spoke at a meeting and told them we would not be able to pass it. We needed them to approve amendments. They passed it anyway."

What prompted this extraordinary move? "Very candidly, the CMH board was hoping for more time," Morgan says. "By passing a budget that was bound to fall, it creates drama and controversy, and it gave them more time to come up with a new budget."

They did--but at the last possible moment. In mid-September, the CMH and county boards held back-to-back special meetings to approve a budget. It included $3.1 million from the county and $1.1 million raised by the county's police and mental health millage. Morgan says the transfers "absolutely" fulfill the intent of the millage--which, he points out, includes preserving existing services.

But the biggest boost was an extra $5 million from the state. Moran credits that to "the direct advocacy of [county administrator] Greg [Dill] and [CMH executive director] Trish Cortes."

In an email, Cortes confirms that her board rejected the county's plan to buy time while she and Dill "met with the State Budget Office, Legislators and Director Gordon from MDHHS to

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provide education regarding the declining mental health funding for Washtenaw County and our region and advocate for increased and equitable funding."

Three years ago, the state adopted a new rate setting methodology that shrank the county's mental health revenue. "Through a tremendous amount of advocacy and on the ground level education regarding service delivery, severity of populations served, and other data points we were successful in influencing rate setting for our region," Cortes writes. "The new rates now have us moving in an upward trend."

"Under the old formulae, we were number ten out of ten regions in the state," Morgan explains. "Now the region is number two. A lot of that happened in private conservations. They came here and saw how things worked. They realized they were short-funding us."

Though the just-passed state budget increased mental health funding overall, Cortes writes, "we did make further administrative cuts. The budget eliminated about a dozen administrative and contractual employees" and continues a hiring freeze.

"It has been a long and heart-wrenching process over the last nine months," Morgan says. "It occupied 60 percent of my time--at least." But in the end the two boards achieved the seemingly impossible: a balanced budget with no cuts in services.     (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2019.]


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