NORMAL — McLean County’s Mental Health Action Plan has drawn concern from Normal council members, who say the progress has been underwhelming.
“We’ve been doing a lot of talking but what do we have to show for it?” Trustee Kathleen Lorenz said Tuesday, noting she believes the county has had too few outcomes related to behavioral health in the last six years.
On Monday, County Board Chairman John McIntyre and County Administrator Cassy Taylor gave an update to the Normal Town Council on the plan and the work done in the area of behavioral health since the town entered an intergovernmental agreement — along with the city of Bloomington — to raise sales tax from 1.5% to 2.5% in 2016 and use the added revenue to support the county’s efforts.
Taylor said the funding has been divided evenly between four areas:
Of the roughly $23.3 million received from the town and city to date, the county has spent about $9.5 million, leaving roughly $13.8 million remaining.
McIntyre said this funding helps the county to complement existing services in the community and provide for additional services.
During the meeting, Lorenz said the council has in the past “taken issue with an entity that had excess reserves,” and has had concerns when members don’t see measurable results. “I see some similarities here with this tonight, and that concerns me,” she said.
The county’s Bridge Academy was also a point of discussion.
Because the program, which Taylor said assists students who cannot participate in traditional schooling because of hospitalization risks, was proposed by the Regional Office of Education, Lorenz questioned whether the town’s money should go toward individual providers like the ROE directly instead of the county.
She said Tuesday it is the council’s duty to be “good stewards with this money, these public dollars.”
An adolescent outpatient center was proposed but never materialized because no agency stepped forward in response to a request for proposals.
“That was supposed to be a project funded directly by our sales tax,” Lorenz said. “… As a result, it appears that the Regional Office of Education has decided to take the lead” with the Bridge Academy.
Trustee Kevin McCarthy, who serves on the county Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, said the county issued requests for proposals for the adolescent outpatient center twice but it did not receive any proposals either time.
“We use words like ‘coordination’ and ‘collaboration’ in this arena, and those are easy words that roll off our tongues in meetings. In the terms of service provision in our community, those are much harder terms to actualize and execute on,” he said.
Having spoken to service provider representatives who helped to create the requests for proposals but chose not to bid on the project, McCarthy said he believes that “speaks to some reticence in our community of service providers to work together.”
He suggested the outcome might have been different if providers had been willing to partner to submit a proposal.
Lorenz said Tuesday she has faith in the local social service providers and their ability and willingness to collaborate on behavioral health issues. Having been on council when the ordinance was passed, she said she’s been disappointed by the accomplishments made since then.
“Let’s get past the history and start doing something,” she said.
During the meeting, McCarthy said while some responsibility for the difficulty in making progress in the area of behavioral health service should be placed with the county, he does not believe it all should be.
He also shared Lorenz’s concern related to the county’s large fund balance, though he pointed to Taylor’s explanation earlier in the presentation.
“We are anticipating the cost of EIJS (electronic integrated justice system) and would like to have funds available for that,” she said, noting that system will be implemented within the next two to three years. “We’ve allocated our (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars through the county for the EIJS project as well as we’ll be using some of the reserves that we have not allocated thus far.”
Lorenz said Tuesday while she understood the county was saving for this system, she had concerns that they are “trying to build the perfect system” that could quickly become outdated.
Trustee Stan Nord asked why the additional funds were not used to pay down the county’s debt related to the expansion of the Law and Justice Center in 2018.
City Manager Pam Reece said the bonds were callable and could not be paid down outside a specific timeframe.
McIntyre said the county board has taken a conservative approach to funding the behavioral health initiatives, working to secure grants to support the plan and make the board the “payers of last resort.”
Those initiatives include the McLean County Triage Center, 200 W. Front St. in Bloomington. McIntyre said the center has faced roadblocks and a slow start in part because of the pandemic.
Last year, 297 people used the service, which is meant to help those with mental health concerns, substance abuse disorders or emotional crises at an emergent level that may not need treatment in a hospital’s emergency department.
Taylor said the center has had a 131% increase in usage so far in 2022, and raising awareness of its availability could increase its use further. The Triage Center has 13 staff members, including security, and is open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. seven days a week, not allowing for overnight stays.
Nord said he wondered about the staffing level of the Triage Center considering the total visitors in 2021 averaged about six people per week.
“I have no idea if that’s good or bad; it’s just, it seems like a question to be asked,” he said of the ratio of staff members to patients.
The council did not take action on the action plan, but Taylor said the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council will vote to approve the plan on Friday.
Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.