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City and county urged to pool resources for behavioral health

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Working together doesn’t always come easy for the city and county.

But Albuquerque and Bernalillo County need to cooperate if they want to ensure a new $20 million tax is spent wisely on new mental and behavioral health services, according to a new report.

The tax, narrowly approved by county commissioners in February, goes into effect today. It will boost the tax on most goods and services from 7 percent to 7.1875 percent, with most of the money dedicated to behavioral health.

That money alone, however, isn’t enough to fill every gap in the service network for people struggling with mental illness, drug addiction or both, according to a report issued by Community Partners Inc., an Arizona-based company hired by the county to help craft a spending plan.

The report recommends that Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and surrounding communities pool their resources and establish a nonprofit agency to oversee spending – a move aimed at coordinating behavioral health services in the region.

The goal is to have a “single point of contact with accountability to the community,” the report said.

“Bernalillo County is at a tipping point, with no cohesive behavioral health system to meet the needs of persons with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues and their families,” the report said.

The urgency to help people in crisis accelerated over the last year after Albuquerque police shot and killed James Boyd – a homeless man who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia – during a standoff in the foothills. It was one of a series of high-profile shootings.

County Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins said she believes local governments are ready to work together, even if it means giving up some decision-making authority.

“The problems in the health system can’t be solved by Bernalillo County by itself or any government by itself,” she told the Journal on Tuesday. “We have to have a partnership … to make any progress. I believe there is a willingness to do exactly that.”

City Councilor Brad Winter said he, too, believes the idea of a regional health authority has merit.

“Unless we all work together,” he said, “we’re not going to have enough money to make a dent.”

County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley said she is considering the recommendations.

“There’s still a lot of questions, I think, as to how this is all going to work,” she said. “It’s a really complex problem, and there’s no easy solution.”

Nonprofit agency

Community Partners Inc. helps run a behavioral health network in the Tucson area. Under a $325,000 contract with Bernalillo County, the company presented its preliminary behavioral health plan to county commissioners last week.

The group recommends creation of a nonprofit agency that would pursue state and federal funding, not just local revenue. Local government agencies that chip in money would have a voting representative on the governing board.

Bernalillo County commissioners would approve the organization’s board members.

It would be known as the Behavioral Health Authority, with its own executive director and staff.

Community Partners Inc. recommended the city and county reach agreement to pool the funding they spend on behavioral health and substance abuse services.

The city already spends at least $14 million a year on behavioral health, the report said.

Some of a $90 million property tax that now goes to the University of New Mexico Hospital might also be redirected to boost behavioral health funding, Community Partners Inc. said.

The report doesn’t estimate how much the county now spends on behavioral health.

In the Tucson area, which includes parts of Pima County outside Tucson, about $40 million a year is spent on the “crisis continuum,” including $26 million for a crisis-response center, the report said. The center is a place where families or people in crisis can go, rather than the person ending up in jail or an emergency room, according to Community Partners Inc.

Contentious history

The city and county have a long history of fighting over the jail system and space in the Downtown office building they share.

But Winter said the two agencies have worked together, too, through the city-county Water Utility Authority and a “Community Schools” partnership. The city and county also worked together on a recent behavioral health task force that examined what services are already available, he said.

“I think we’ve got a really good start,” Winter said.

Hart Stebbins said regional agencies have worked well in other parts of the country, too.

“I think people recognize this could be a real turning point in addressing the behavioral health system in this region,” she said. “It’s a unique opportunity to do something concrete, something that will have an impact.”

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