Douglas County appears poised to move forward with a $30 million jail addition for mental health treatment, after a vote Tuesday that rejected a proposal to also erect a community mental health center building next door.
The board voted 5-2 to reject a proposed project, estimated at $60 million, for both the Douglas County Jail addition and a new home for the Douglas County Community Mental Health Center. The proposal would have used $50 million of 2021 American Rescue Plan Act money.
County Board member PJ Morgan said he’ll introduce a resolution by as early as May 23 to build a mental health treatment unit connected to the jail, 710 S. 17th St. It would provide care to incarcerated people, which county corrections officials have long cited as a growing need. Consultants have estimated that the addition would cost about $34 million.
Morgan and board member Roger Garcia said at Tuesday’s meeting that the board should wait until March 2024, after the next session of the Nebraska Legislature, to make a decision on what to do about the Community Mental Health Center. That’s because Morgan believes the Legislature might provide more money, he said.
People are also reading…
Cost and stigma were the main reasons cited by opponents of building a new community mental health center near the jail. In the 5-2 vote, Morgan, Mike Friend, Roger Garcia, James Cavanaugh and Maureen Boyle voted no. Mary Ann Borgeson and Chris Rodgers voted yes.
Morgan was among several board members who cited concerns about the estimated $23.5 million cost of the proposed community mental health center, and the estimated $60 million cost of the two facilities combined.
About $8 million of that was to come from the county’s general fund, from money that was left over from the federal CARES Act COVID relief to the county. The county might need that money in coming tight budget times, Morgan said.
The County Board has been discussing for months how to address two sets of needs: addressing the increasing numbers of people in jail with mental illnesses, and moving the Community Mental Health Center out of the county’s nursing home at 4102 Woolworth Ave. The board has also held a series of town halls on mental health needs, for more than a year. It had voted to make mental health a main priority for ARPA funds and had earmarked about $50 million for it.
County Corrections Director Michael Myers and Community Mental Health Center Director Sherry Driver had urged co-locating the facilities. They said their departments often work together already, serving many of the same people, and would be more effective if they were located closer to each other.
But Cavanaugh and a number of people from the public — including former State Sen. Ernie Chambers at Tuesday’s board meeting — have contended that putting the community facility next to the jail would stigmatize mental health care.
Labels can kill, Chambers said.
“To take those people who have been stigmatized and put them in a situation where the place they go for treatment is going to be related to the place where you put criminals, criminality (and) mental illness are going to be bound together once again,” Chambers said.
A consultant for the county had suggested options, including a joint facility near the jail that would house treatment for people in jail and the general public. Cavanaugh has pressed the board to consider an alternative plan involving renovations of the Douglas County Health Center building, which he said would be less expensive. He has said the county should explore collaborating with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and local hospital systems.
Morgan said Tuesday he believes that such collaboration is possible. He said the county could still use the remaining ARPA money, after the jail addition, for Community Mental Health Center needs. He said philanthropists may contribute.
Board Chair Borgeson was skeptical.
“The private sector and the hospitals and community providers — where were they for the last 14 months?” Borgeson said. “Where have the medical centers been for the last 14, 24, 34 years of us providing this service, and not stepping up to help us provide the services for the most vulnerable in our communities? Because, again, no matter what private-public partnership we do, we’re going to be stuck with serving those individuals. And you can just mark my words on that.”
She urged the board to listen to the county’s corrections and mental health directors as the experts with experience in serving the people to whom the county must provide mental health care.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 402-444-1057, twitter.com/CHRISBURBACH