County eyes grant for mental-health crisis intervention

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The Flathead County commissioners will decide on Monday whether to apply for a grant that would fund new personnel for the Western Montana Mental Health Center.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ two-year county and tribal grant would provide $144,600 each year for a “Co-Responder Project,” which would enhance the center’s crisis-intervention services in Flathead County. The center would use the funds to hire a full-time community-based therapist, a full-time community support specialist and a part-time care coordinator. It would also cover supplies and travel costs.

The employees would be employed by the center, not Flathead County, according to Abby Hartnett, executive director of the Western Montana Mental Health Center.

The community-based therapist would be embedded with local law enforcement and work closely with law enforcement in mental health-related incidents. The community support specialist would work from center while the part-time care coordinator would be the “air traffic controller,” Hartnett explained, linking those in need to appropriate services and resources.

The grant requires a “soft match” of $206,571 per year – money that the center’s partners already expend on mental-health services. Hartnett said the soft match costs are already covered at a minimum $301,000 per year.

Western Montana Mental Health Center’s strategic goals for the grant include increasing the mobility of its crisis response system, reducing the stigma associated with crisis response and assisting law enforcement in mental-health related situations they are not trained to manage.

However, the county commissioners were split over the grant at their Nov. 25 meeting.

Commissioners Philip Mitchell and Randy Brodehl voted to postpone the decision whether to move forward with the grant to Dec. 2, while Commissioner Pam Holmquist voted not to move forward with the grant consideration.

“You guys do an amazing job with what you have,” Holmquist said, referring to Western Montana Mental Health Center, but she said she is concerned about the potential liability to local taxpayers.

“We’re being asked to sign off on a grant for a nonprofit that we have no oversight over, and yet we assignees assume exposure and liability for,” she said. “I caution my fellow commissioners to not go down this path, which exposes county taxpayers to the exposure and liability that I have mentioned earlier.”

She said the center offers a much-needed service in the community, but scolded the state government for cutting mental-health funding and passing the responsibility on to the counties.

“The state continues to shift their responsibility to counties by holding a carrot out with an expiration date. We represent the taxpayers in Flathead County and our focus should be on protecting them,” she said.

Mitchell said he could not make a decision with such a quick turn-around, and asked the commissioners to vote to make a decision at the Dec. 2 meeting.

He said that while the grant technically does not cost the county anything, he said it still costs the taxpayers because they pay taxes to the state, which distributes the grant.

Brodehl, who represents Flathead County on the Western Montana Regional Mental Health board, was supportive of the grant and said it was fair to give the other commissioners more time to look it over. He said he has been more involved in the grant process and believes the program can be effective while also saving taxpayers money by reducing the need for critical mental-health services in the long run.

“The likelihood of it saving taxpayer money by dealing with it [mental health] up front is very high in my mind … I think it is a cost-savings for the taxpayer both at the state level and the county level,” he said.

He noted that because the new employees will not be county employees, it will not be the county’s responsibility to “take over those salaries” once the two-year grant is up. “Hopefully you will get some other funding or figure that out,” Brodehl said. “These are the most needy in our community.”

Flathead County already gives $96,000 annually to the Western Montana Mental Health Center, and this would not change regardless of what happens with the grant.

The project has received letters of support from Kalispell Police Chief Doug Overman; Leslie Nyman, director of behavioral health at Kalispell Regional Healthcare; and Elizabeth Brooks, director of the Flathead Emergency Communication Center.

“My department frequently responds to community members in mental-health crisis and responding often taxes our time,” Overman wrote in his letter. “I welcome the addition of the Flathead Co-responder project as a community-based mental-health diversion program to improve integration of public service initiatives in our community.”

Brooks wrote, “I am eager to engage in diversion practices to help transition from the current reactionary system to a proactive, collaborative model. I consider embedded mental-health professionals assessing and case-coordination in real-time with law enforcement to be a game-changing strategy and much needed in the Flathead.”

Hartnett said the center will still pursue the grant if the commissioners decide not to go through with it, through the more difficult path of soliciting private donors.

“The commissioners have been great,” she said, adding that regardless of the outcome, “we want the commissioners to be an active participant in mental health.”

The commissioners will consider the grant proposal at 11 a.m. Monday in their chambers on the third floor of the Flathead County Courthouse. Public comments will be taken on any topics between 8:45 and 9 a.m. Monday

Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or cgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

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