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Editorial: Bernco’s got $89.5M; taxpayers get mental health suggestion box

Four years after sticking Bernalillo County consumers with an additional tax on goods and services for mental health programs, the county is considering asking the public what it should do with $89.5 million of your hard-earned money.

We hate to say we told you so, but. …

There was no question there has been – still is – a dearth of help for those in crisis in the Metro area. And since the 2014 fatal shooting of homeless, schizophrenic camper James Boyd in the Sandia Foothills by police, the need for a crisis triage center has rightfully been the reformers’ battle cry.

On Feb. 17, 2015, the Journal editorial “Bernalillo County puts tax before accountability” advised to get a plan in place before asking voters for money. But rather than put together a real plan – say a location, capacity, list of services, list of providers, blueprint, budget, etc. – on Feb. 25, 2015, the County Commission approved a tax increase heavy on compassion and light on details. Taxpayers were promised that for their 19 cents on every $100 purchase (which now brings in more than $22 million a year), they would get a place beyond jail or the ER where law enforcement could take those with mental health and/or drug addiction problems. A place where those folks could be guided to programs and services.

But it was a place without an address, floorplan or staff.

And so two months later, on April 19, 2015, the Journal editorial “County needs to put the ‘system’ in mental health” advocated the county heed a Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce fact-finding mission to Tucson and make its bottom line integrated services.

Fast forward to Aug. 11, 2017, when the editorial “Two years later, a mental-health promise still unkept” explained some of the extra millions were backfilling existing programs.

Last year, on Jan. 9, 2018, the editorial “It’s past time to make mental health program real” berated the county for collecting three years of taxes but not deploying crisis teams.

And last week, County Manager Julie Morgas Baca asked Bernalillo County commissioners to allow the public to propose behavioral health service ideas through a website. What amounts to an electronic suggestion box.

Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up. But it gets better.

Commissioners approved the request on a unanimous 5-0 vote.

And so, more than four years and almost $90 million of your tax dollars later, Bernalillo County will be checking its “inbox” to see what it should do for the thousands of homeless, addicted, suicidal, struggling people in our community.

Yes, the county has made small inroads, handing out cash to deal with adverse childhood experiences, getting released inmates into housing, proposing building a handful of tiny homes, deploying one or two mobile crisis teams. Yes, it’s adding 16 beds on the campus of MATS, its drug and alcohol detoxification center in Southeast Albuquerque, for those who do not meet the criteria for psychiatric hospitalization or need help after being discharged.

But four years after it started taking more of your tax dollars, it has yet to present anything resembling a solid plan for a crisis triage center, a place police officers could have taken James Boyd instead of escalating an hours-long confrontation by shooting him. Instead, according to the Journal story May 27, “it marks a step toward eventually establishing a full-fledged crisis triage center somewhere on the University of New Mexico footprint.”

Even County Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins, a strong proponent of the mental health tax, admits the revenue has not made it into the community as advertised, saying “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.”

Yes, they did. The Metro area desperately needs expanded mental health services, a smart and coordinated approach with public/nonprofit/private partnerships that streamlines help and gets it to those who need it.

But more than four years and almost $90 million have simply gotten it “a step toward eventually” having that “somewhere.”

And so, as the county’s online portal opens, the Journal Editorial Board’s suggestion from 2015, before the county started taking tens of millions of dollars of consumers’ money stands: Get a plan.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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