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$17M in new taxes; no mental health programs yet

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Anyone living or doing business in Bernalillo County has paid a little extra in taxes over the last year – about $20 million altogether – to launch a network of new services for people struggling with mental illness or addiction.

But the county hasn’t actually offered any new programs.

Some of the money is being spent anyway, but for a housing program that was in place before the tax increase – a move the County Commission approved to help address a budget shortfall this year.

County officials say new programs are on the way: The county is simply taking care to coordinate with other agencies and ensure the money is well-spent.

That means the creation of working groups and consultation with the city of Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Hospital and others, all of which takes time, county executives say.

“I’m actually pleased with our progress today,” County Commission Chairman Art De La Cruz, a Democrat, said in an interview. “It would be a disservice to run out and pell-mell put programs together without them being fully thought through.”

The county has established a series of subcommittees and agreed to send potential programs through a joint city-county board – part of an attempt to ensure new programs are properly vetted.

But some proponents of the tax increase say they fear the administrative structure is making it harder to get services on the streets.

Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, a Democrat, said the county should streamline its process.

“I really do share people’s frustration with the pace of the decision-making” she said. “We have ample research identifying the gaps in our behavioral health system, and we know that there are people who desperately need help.”

In any case, this much is clear: County residents are paying for new services they aren’t getting yet.

Programs not defined

The new behavioral-health tax went into effect July 1 last year. It’s a gross receipts tax – meaning it’s levied on anyone buying basic goods and services in Albuquerque or the rest of the county, similar to a sales tax.

The new tax amounts to one-eighth of 1 percent, or a little over 12 cents on every $100 purchase. It’s expected to raise about $17 million to $20 million a year, though the amount will vary based on economic activity.

County commissioners approved the tax on a 3-2 vote after voters expressed support for the idea. A nonbinding ballot question in 2014 won support from about 69 percent of voters.

The ballot initiative didn’t define any particular programs. It asked voters whether they favored a one-eighth of 1 percent tax to pay for “more mental and behavioral health services” to provide “a safety net system that develops a continuum of care not otherwise funded” in the state.

The commission vote to adopt the tax was along party lines – with Democrats in the majority – and did not define specific programs that would be funded.

Commissioner Wayne Johnson, a Republican, was among the opponents. It was premature, he said, to enact the tax before a detailed plan for spending the money was in place.

But now that the tax is in place, it’s wise to move cautiously, he said in a recent interview.

“I am happy with the fact that we are being careful about what we’re going to use those dollars for,” Johnson said. “We’re creating a structure and a partnership to make sure those dollars go as far as they possibly can.”

The administrative structure makes it harder for the county to decide on its own how to spend the money.

The county has established a series of committees – with community representatives and subject-matter experts – that help vet the projects. A joint panel of Albuquerque city councilors, the mayor and county commissioners is also involved. The group meets monthly, if it can muster a quorum. It has met four times so far this year.

And, of course, final authorization to spend must come from the County Commission itself.

‘Mobile crisis teams’

Katrina Hotrum, the county’s director of substance abuse programs, said there has been real progress behind the scenes.

County executives, for example, are working with the sheriff’s office, city police and other agencies to collaborate on a pilot project that would establish “mobile crisis teams,” she said.

The goal would be to add a licensed counselor or social worker to the group of law-enforcement officers responding to a person caught in a mental-health crisis – like, say, a man with a weapon threatening to harm himself or others. The goal would be to de-escalate the situation before someone gets hurt.

But the pilot project isn’t ready to go before the appropriate committee – and later to the full County Commission – for funding, Hotrum said. She said he wasn’t sure when the project might be ready for introduction to the committee, and she wouldn’t estimate when the service might start.

The county is also working on new housing programs aimed at helping more people struggling with mental illness or homelessness. The goal is to get them help before they end up in jail or in confrontations with police.

Another possibility for funding is a “community engagement team,” or a group that would check on people after they’ve been discharged from the hospital to ensure they’re getting the services they need.

None of the programs has reached the point of going before county commissioners for approval because staffers are still working with other agencies on how to carry out the pilot projects, among other preparation.

Housing program

Some of the new tax money will be spent as soon as this month.

Facing a $19 million budget shortfall this year – after spending had climbed in recent years to pay for new corrections officers, sheriff’s deputies and other programs – the County Commission decided to use the new tax to pick up the cost of a housing program that helps inmates coming out of jail, with the goal of providing them services before they end up back there.

The program is not new, but it costs about $1.3 million a year to run. Paying for it out of the new tax, then, freed up $1.3 million in this year’s budget for other basic county operations, starting July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

It’s a perfectly appropriate use of the tax, County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, a Democrat, said. The county might have had to eliminate the housing program had it not been able to shift the cost to the new tax, she said.

And it’s exactly the kind of service that fits with the mission of the addressing behavioral health, O’Malley said.

“We are in a budget crisis,” she said. “We can’t get around that.”

Deliberate pace

The county has collected about $17 million from the new tax. Almost all of the money is sitting in an account, available for a one-time purpose, such as a construction project.

Hotrum, the director of substance abuse programs, said the county is considering several options. The county might pay for mental health “First Aid” training for the community and service providers, she said.

Capital options are also under consideration, but the county administration isn’t ready yet to make a recommendation to the commission.

Hotrum said that, while some people are eager to see the county move more quickly, the deliberate pace will ensure the money is spent wisely. The county has been working with the University of New Mexico Hospital, state government and others “to stretch the funding and maximize proposed services,” she said.

The goal is to create programs whose effectiveness can be measured with meaningful data, Hotrum said.

And some programs have been launched that don’t require funding from the new tax, such as a project that allows people who call 911 to be connected with a counselor.

“There’s quite a bit of progress going on,” said De La Cruz, the commission chairman.