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County to welcome behavioral health program suggestions

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County has since 2015 collected $89.5 million worth of taxes in the name of behavioral health programming, but now two of its top leaders say not enough of it has reached the community.

One possible solution?

Allowing anyone to put program suggestions into the evaluation pipeline – something only county staff had heretofore been authorized to do.

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca this week asked the elected, five-member County Commission to approve a resolution that permits “stakeholders, providers, community members, staff, commissioners, or other interested parties” to propose behavioral health service ideas through a website.

The resolution passed Tuesday night on a 5-0 vote.

“I just really think it needs to be opened up, and we need to realize there’s a lot of people out there who have real life experience,” Morgas Baca said in an interview. “I want to solicit their input to see how much of a difference we can make in addition to what we’re already doing.”

Each idea would still go through a vetting process. One committee would ensure it meets the criteria for an expenditure based on the behavioral health tax language approved by voters. A separate subcommittee of stakeholders and subject matter experts would review the idea and recommend the next steps.

“I am in favor of the formalization of this process and creating an additional avenue for meaningful community input,” said Margarita Chavez-Sanchez, acting director of the county’s Department of Behavioral Health Services. “We absolutely welcome the submission of concepts through our online portal for review.”

All program appropriations still require approval from the County Commission.

County Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins had introduced a similar resolution two months ago, but the commission rejected it on a 3-2 vote.

Morgas Baca said she thought the idea was solid and worth another review.

“I don’t know that everybody understood what she was trying to do the first time around,” Morgas Baca said.

Hart Stebbins said in an interview the county has been especially “responsible” with the tax revenue so far but that its existing process might be limiting valuable input. While she said opening the suggestion box might yield some ideas that are not workable or worthwhile, she said every citizen should have the opportunity to make recommendations for programs that would close gaps in behavioral health services.

She said the tax revenue has not yet filtered into the community the way she thinks it should have.

“There are still a lot of people in this community who need services, and we need to provide those services. … That’s what we promised the taxpayers,” she said.

Bernalillo County voters in 2014 approved a special tax to fund behavioral health programs, and the county began collecting it in 2015. It has averaged about $20 million in annual revenue, though officials are estimating about $22.5 million in collections this fiscal year.

Approved programming should eventually cost the county $18.9 million annually, but more than $70 million in tax revenue has accumulated so far.

According to the latest figures from the Department of Behavioral Health Services, most of that money is encumbered for one-time expenditures, such as the $30 million earmarked for a future crisis triage center and $12 million for supportive housing.

The commission also recently approved up to $6 million in one-time appropriations for startup or capital spending that would create or expand behavioral health services. Providers will be able to apply for the funding through a request for proposals.

Hart Stebbins said the community has responded with great enthusiasm, saying so many people showed up at a preproposal conference that the fire marshal had to do crowd control.

“There’s clearly a lot of pent-up demand in this community for those dollars,” she said.

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