Editorial: A $161 million lesson in why you need a game plan - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: A $161 million lesson in why you need a game plan

Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley says the Behavioral Health Initiative seems to operate “project by project” instead of in a comprehensive fashion.

She’s not alone in her concerns. But she’s the only current commissioner who was on the job when the county imposed a one-eighth of 1% gross-receipts tax in 2015 to “develop a comprehensive, well-networked and accessible continuum of care for children, youth and adults in need of behavioral health services” in partnership with federal, state and local governments plus the nonprofit and private sector.

Voters supported the idea in a non-binding election in 2014, in great part reacting to the fatal police shooting of homeless, schizophrenic camper James Boyd and likely because they thought the county had a plan to make “comprehensive, well-networked and accessible” services happen.

So for seven long years, consumers have ponied up an extra penny on every $8 purchase (12.5 cents on $100), recognizing an urgent need for better services for those in mental health or substance abuse crises. But we’re still waiting for the “comprehensive, well-networked and accessible.”

The county’s earliest, most concrete goal was a “crisis triage center” to aid those who might otherwise end up in jail or the emergency room. Seven years and $161 million later, there’s not one, though groundbreaking is scheduled next month and officials say it will open in 2024.

The Journal Editorial Board expressed concern in 2014-15 of taxing based on good intentions instead of a real plan. Now the public deserves an accounting of all that tax money.

No. 1: What have they gotten for the $80 million or so that has moved out the door? Supporters point to incremental projects and teams, but critics could argue some of those millions have been used to backfill existing programs rather than build a crisis center. And while those programs may be effective and deserving, among BHI’s disappointments is there are no meaningful metrics to measure its impact.

No. 2: Even after this year and some major planned expenditures, finance officials anticipate the county will have $32 million sitting in the bank on top of the customary reserves, though Bernalillo County’s top executive, Julie Morgas Baca, said $4 million will go to the new medical “sobering center” at the city’s Gateway Center. Why did the county need all that money from cash-strapped taxpayers?

Meanwhile, suicide rates in Bernalillo County are higher than before the tax and drug overdose deaths have soared. The number of people who are homeless in Albuquerque — which represents the vast majority of Bernalillo County — is higher today than in 2015, according to official counts.

And while the tax has been described as a mechanism for working alongside others to develop a “continuum of care” in the community, the county and its most logical partner — the city of Albuquerque — showed “no effective collaboration at all levels to improve the lives of citizens,” according to a 2021 analysis the two ordered to identify local needs.

So much for government partnerships.

That may be changing, albeit $161 million and seven years late. Morgas Baca says the county is now partnering with the city on multiple projects including the Gateway, reengaging community members in its BHI decision-making and developing a plan to better inform the public about available resources. She has extracted the BHI from the Department of Behavioral Health Services and merged it with criminal justice reform efforts to create a new office that “represents the county’s critical non-law enforcement response to help reduce crime, lower recidivism, and improve outcomes for those needing treatment and support for behavioral health disorders,” according to the county’s website.

OK, but how? While it sounds promising, taxpayers deserve more than promises, especially this far in. The county needs a detailed, transparent and accountable strategic plan for an easy-to-navigate, accessible system that serves individual needs and moves the needle on the quality of life in Bernalillo County. Taxpayers are still forking over 12.5 cents on every $100 — tens of millions a year — and waiting for data that shows their return on investment.

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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