Tax Dollars at Work
What has the police and mental health millage accomplished so far-and what else will it do?
Published in April, 2020
County officials feared their eight-year, 1-mill tax, meant to support police and mental health services, might be too big and complicated to pass. But in November 2017, 64 percent of voters said yes.
The new tax--$100 annually for each $100,000 of a home's taxable value--raised a bit more than $16 million in the first year. Community Mental Health got $6 million, and the sheriff's office got $6.1 million.
Sheriff Jerry Clayton used $2.5 million of his share to pay the deputies who provide police services under contract to school districts and local governments, including the city of Dexter and the townships of Dexter, Lodi, Scio, and Webster. Clayton--who came up with the idea of the millage--then froze the governments' cost per deputy at $160,650 for two years, with increases of 1.5 percent in the third and fourth years of the current contract.
No municipality used the savings to hire more deputies, and none of the townships that chose to rely instead on the Michigan State Police has come on board with the sheriff's department. But Clayton says he's "happy with the outcome." After years of tensions over rising costs, the contracting communities are "not complaining. I'll take silence as approval."
And at least one voice is positive: "The Sheriff's office has been very helpful and proactive in finding ways to help keep our [police service] cost increases reasonable and predictable," emails Dexter mayor Shawn Keough. "We appreciate that very much."
The remaining $3.9 million raised by the millage was returned to communities with their own police forces to spend as they wished. After much debate, Ann Arbor's city council dedicated its share to affordable housing, climate action, and pedestrian safety. Pittsfield and Saline both committed theirs to public safety.
Pittsfield hasn't spent much of it yet, but Saline "was able to obtain a full time detective/investigator position and backfill the officer opening with a new police officer," emails chief Jerrod Hart. "Basically, we added 1 sworn position
to the ranks."
New detective/investigator Mike King came to Saline after working as a county sheriff's deputy and Stockbridge's police chief. In terms of crime, he says, Saline sees "the same type of things that you would have at a bigger department, [just] not as frequent." He recently worked on an "identity theft investigation [that] involved somewhere over $50,000. And the gentleman also had purchased a Mercedes-Benz and put the young lady's name on it."
But he also understands that police work isn't just detective work. What he calls "the mental health stuff" is also "extremely important--if you can [address] it from where the problem is beginning."
That's the goal of new millage-funded mental health clinics in Dexter, Chelsea, and Manchester. Chelsea mayor Melissa Johnson emails that a CARES team is on hand "every Friday at the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital behavioral health outpatient facility in the Clock Tower complex on Main Street." They also appear weekly in the St. Joe's facility in Dexter in the strip mall on Dexter Ann Arbor Rd. and in the Manchester Village offices below the library.
Clinics are also in Whitmore Lake twice weekly--mostly in the schools. "We've definitely seen a lot more younger people," says Shannon Ellis, the day-to-day operations supervisor for Community Mental Health's new CARES team. The name represents "crisis, access, resources, engagement, and support"--because, as program administrator Lisa Gentz explains, "the whole heart of the program is to try to get people immediate access to care."
"Most of the people CARES sees have anxiety and depression," Ellis says, though sometimes "we'll see people who are having a psychotic break, [and] you have to help them with something right now!"
Ellis stresses that the clinics are "absolutely" free. That makes it much easier for people to ask for help--and should save CMH money in the long run. "These people, if they didn't get access to care, would potentially need higher levels of care," Gentz explains. "They would end up requiring hospitalization or getting sicker."
CARES is the first of three major initiatives funded with the millage's mental health money. It rolled out last March, and through January had handled 4,294 cases. "Most people are being referred through providers in the community who are aware of the CARES team," Gentz emails, "or through family members who know about the services."
"We've got a big team," Ellis says: a psychiatrist, a nurse practitioner, two case managers, seven mental health professionals, and six peer-support specialists--"folks who have lived experience" with mental illness, she explains. They're particularly useful, because new clients "instantly have trust with the peer supports."
CARES team members are permanently stationed at Community Mental Health clinics in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. And they'll staff the millage's second major initiative: "a crisis assessment center" opening in March in Ypsilanti.
It's all part of Clayton's vision.
"[T]hroughout the last couple of decades, state government has made decisions that has resulted in a reduction in support" for people with mental illness, he emails. "One example is the closing of many of the state mental health facilities without replacing those services with strategic investment in other community based support services. As it stands today, there isn't nearly enough of the required resources at the local level, providing the kind of service needed by people in the community. Some of those people end up in the criminal justice system. They end up in the worst place, considering their condition; jail."
The crisis assessment center will provide an alternative: a place where people can be triaged and stabilized for up to a day. "We will be able to serve up to five individuals" at a time, says CMH director Trish Cortes. "It's a really great way to avoid having to go to the emergency room or for law enforcement to be able to divert from jails."
Initially folks will be referred there by the CARES team, but eventually they will also be brought in by local police, sheriff's deputies, and Huron Valley Ambulance. The hope is that after being stabilized many of them will be able to return home instead of being locked up.
"We have people that're being arrested and put in jail [that] don't pose a risk," Clayton says. He hopes that what he calls "law-enforcement-assisted deflection" will steer them "right to [mental health] services. We've hired a project program coordinator, Marlene Radzik, who was the [police service] commander here." Because Radzik was retired, Clayton says, "I can hire her for a lot less money."
The Saline Police Department is ready: Chief Hart says Detective King "has the autonomy to divert cases [from the jail] per a diversion agreement with Washtenaw County Community Mental Health."
The third millage-funded initiative, a dedicated mental health unit in the jail, is still in the planning stages. "The challenge with that is hiring enough corrections officers," Clayton says. "We've already set aside money for the unit manager [and] for the part-time mental health specialists." He hopes to have it open by the end of the year.
But even with $6 million more annually, Clayton is "concerned about the mental health budget. They can't manage what they don't get from the state. The big challenge is the state's disinvestment in CMH."
Shifts in how state mental health funding is allocated blew a $10 million hole in Washtenaw CMH's budget last year. Successful lobbying in Lansing restored half the deficit, but the county still had to kick in $3.1 million.
The county can't afford to do that every year. "If some of the projections come true," Clayton warns, "the county's going to have to tighten their belt."
If the state keeps squeezing community mental health, will the new services survive? "I sincerely hope so," Clayton, "but I don't know for sure."
[Originally published in April, 2020.]
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