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Washtenaw County Voters To Decide Community Mental Health And Public Safety Proposal On Nov. 7th

Election Day is right around the corner, and voters in Washtenaw County will decide what has turned out to be a somewhat divisive ballot measure. It appears on the ballot as the “Washtenaw County Community Mental Health and Public Safety Preservation Millage.”  Those who favor passage of the 8-year, one mill tax say the more than $15 million  it would generate annually is essential to the future of policing at the intersection of mental health services.  Those who oppose it contend too much of the money is being directed inappropriately and may, in fact, be subject to legal challenge.

The way the money would be allocated is at the center of the divide.  If passed, 38% of the money would go to the Washtenaw County Community Mental Health Department.  38% would be allocated to the Sheriff’s office.  Dexter Township Supervisor Harley Rider says he understands why that portion of the millage is needed.

“I support the increase in funding for mental health. I spent 38 years in law enforcement, I’m very much aware of the ties between mental health and law enforcement.”

Based on population, the remaining 24% of the levy would be distributed to the communities in Washtenaw County that have their own police departments.  Those without are already contracting policing services from the Sheriff’s office.  So, the 24% would represent a rebate to Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti, Chelsea, Milan, Saline, and Northfield Township.  Those are communities that fund their own departments.  Rider says this part of the ballot proposal takes advantage of his Township and, he believes, crosses a legal line.

“It’s very clear in Michigan that you have to state the specific purpose the funds are going to be used for. And Ann Arbor city council has already said that they’re going to use theirs for affordable housing and pedestrian safety and fighting climate change. So they’re going to take money from the rural communities and fund pet urban projects, and that is illegal.”

For those very reasons, the proposal barely made it to the ballot.  It won approval from the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners on a narrow 5-4 vote.  1st District Commissioner KentMartinez-Kratz was among those who stood in opposition.

“We could have done a straight-up mental health millage and it would pass overwhelming. We could have done a mental health and public safety, but when we threw in that last fifteen million dollars in for Ann Arbor, I don’t know why…what I perceive to be the wealthiest community in the county, has to be bailed out from the townships.”

Martinez-Kratz and Rider are politically opposed to the millage request.  But for some, it’s not about politics--it’s personal.  34-year old Christina Linguidi lives in Ann Arbor.

“I have lived with a mental health diagnosis since I was five years old."

Christina says mental health problems run in her family.  For her part, the issues were exacerbated when she was sexually assaulted and became a human trafficking victim while in the state’s foster care system.  Since that time, Christina has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and that makes it difficult to regulate her emotions.  She says if more mental health services would’ve been available to her at a young age, her life may be different.

“I would have benefited from those services. I almost got kicked out of college for having an eating disorder, and I ended up in a hospital several times and talked my way out of going into a psychiatric hospital, even though I probably should have at that point in time. Because the beds are not there and the money isn’t there, so they only do take the severest cases if they really feel that you are in danger of completing suicide.”

Since 2015, Christina has been receiving mental health services at the Fresh Start Clubhouse in Ann Arbor. 

“Since Christina has been here, she has gone back into the workforce.”

That is Summer Berman.  She serves as director at the clubhouse.  Berman says, each year, her facility helps those with mental illness get an education, move into the workforce, or improve their social skills.  If the millage were to pass, Berman says Fresh Start could help even more.

“On average, it’s every 1 in 4 to 5 people who have a serious mental illness. So, in Washtenaw County that is potentially almost 59,000-69,000 people in the county who could have a mental health illness, who could potentially be eligible for our services and we’re only serving about 115 of them.”

Of course, there is public welfare to consider.  Sometimes, those in crisis create emergency situations to which swift and meaningful response is needed.  That is one of the reasons why Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton favors passage of the ballot proposal.

“We know one of the key things that we have to have is what we call a crisis response time strategy, which includes a location where people who are in a mental health crisis and may have come in contact with a first responder, can be taken to triage, hopefully stabilized, maybe a 48-hour time period. And hopefully, if things are right, return back to their home in a stable fashion living their lives.”

Sheriff Clayton says the money generated by the tax would help stabilize the mental health crisis in Washtenaw County.  For the Community Mental Health Department, it could help restore services to about 350 people who lost them due to budget cuts back in 2014.  Clayton adds it would afford his office the opportunity to more effectively, and inexpensively, provide services to those who get put into the legal system.  He says, right now, it costs the county $135 a day to keep someone in jail who could be suffering from mental illness.  He says the cost of providing those same services outside of jail is about $35 dollars. That, he says, would allow for more of the money to be put into prevention and operational expenses.

“Washtenaw County is a great place to live and work, it’s safe but didn’t get that way by accident. It got that way because we’ve invested in police safety, countywide.”

That’s not enough to sway some opponents of the ballot proposal. While Dexter Township Supervisor Harley Rider agrees it costs money to provide important public safety and mental health services, he says this proposal is the wrong way to go.

“There’s an argument that we’re not paying our fair share for our deputies that we contract with Dexter Township. The county, depending on what set of fuzzy numbers they use, says that they’re contributing about $40,000 per deputy, we contract three deputies, so there is $120,000. Our 38% that we are sending to the Sheriff is $150,000, so we’re sending more to the Sheriff than our subsidy would be. So if they want us to pay the full rate, fine. Tell us exactly what that cost is, don’t throw in any funny numbers, and we’ll pay our full rate.”

Washtenaw County voters will decided whether this is the right proposal on Tuesday, November 7th.  Even then, the debate may not come to an end.  Rider says, if approved, he plans to challenge the millage in court, even if he has to do so out of his own pocket.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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