Council agrees on need for mental health millage, questions timing

BURTON — City council heard from organizers of a countywide mental health millage election, scheduled for the May 4, and while it supports the services needed in Genesee County, questions were raised about the timing of the proposal.

David Lossing with Vanguard Public Affairs, who is assisting Genesee Health System with their millage scheduled for the May 4 ballot, was joined by Danis Russell, CEO of Genesee Health System, at the March 15 council meeting.

The pair explained the proposed $9.5 million annual millage which will fund mental health training, services and a $3.3 million facility to the council, ahead of the May 4 special election.

Russell said mental health needs in Genesee County were increasing prior to the pandemic and during the pandemic, he said, it has gotten worse.

“As the pandemic has scaled down, we see that the need is just going to grow,” said Russell. “And we’re going to need flexible spending for individuals who don’t have Medicaid benefits.”

Medicaid currently funds the Genesee Health System, along with private insurance, and Russell said that funding isn’t enough to meet the mental health needs of the community.

That need has led the county to placing a 10-year, .94 mills proposal on the May 4 ballot. The millage is the culmination of several months of work between Vanguard Public Affairs and GHS, which is modeled after similar proposals that have passed in Ingham, Eaton, Jackson, Hillsdale and Washtenaw counties.

Vanguard also helped with the ballot proposals in those communities, said Lossing, who is the former mayor of Linden.

Lossing said the proposal will focus on seven areas of mental health care, including:

1. Working with law enforcement officers in a crisis team intervention model. Every police officer in Genesee County will be trained in forming a Crisis Intervention Team. The millage will generate $521,000 annually to cover wages and any other training costs.

2. Working with the court system itself in training those officers in triage and assessment for treatment, providing de-escalation and hospital diversion or jail diversion and then promoting safety escalation during mental health related calls and phone calls – $3,270,059 annually.

3. Funding for courts and corrections systems. Genesee County already has a Mental Health Court through the 7th District Circuit Court, but the GHS wants to augment that with an assisted outpatient treatment program. Also, to provide mental health support and services when there is no stable funding involved – $521,000

4. Suicide and crisis prevention – activities not otherwise funded by traditional funding sources –$521,000

5. Working with the K-12 community though both public and charter schools and non-profits that deal with young people to provide support services for student mental health – $971,000

6. A mental health facility in Genesee County. Hurley had drawn up a schematic for a physical footprint before the beginning of the pandemic last year, said Lossing. After the pandemic hit, the conversation stalled. The building is owned by Hurley Medical and is located on Fifth Avenue just west of Grand Traverse. It will be a location residents and law enforcement can bring residents having a mental health crisis, instead of taking them to the Genesee County Jail or a lock-up, or the emergency room at one of the three local hospitals. This facility will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, staffed by professionals who can provide the care and treatment those individuals require – $3,270,059

7. Dealing with the vulnerable population in Genesee County. When Michigan shut down the mental health hospitals in the 1980s, those individuals were pushed into the shelters and the street, said Lossing – $521,000

Lossing said a poll of likely voters yielded 300 completed responses from across the county, conducted March 5-6, showed 76 percent would support a millage for mental health in Genesee County and that grew to 81 percent after they were told what Genesee Health System wanted to do with the millage.

He said for a home with a taxable value of i$25,000, the cost of the millage would be $23.50 a year, or 6 cents a day. For a taxable value of $50,000 that’s just $47 a year, or $12 cents a day and for a $200,000 taxable value the cost is $188 per year or 51 cents a day.

“To me that’s a small price to pay so my neighbors can have access to mental health services if they don’t have it already,” said Lossing.

City Council President Steve Heffner asked if state funding for the programs currently in place would continue if the millage passes and Russell said it would because it is government mandated. That amount is currently about $2.8 million a year.

Heffner also questioned why taxpayer money should be put into a facility owned by Hurley Medical Center.

“Hurley is owned by the City of Flint, it is a City of Flint asset,” said Heffner. “Why should Burton taxes should go to pay for a City of Flint asset? That’s one thing I don’t like about this.”

Russell said the taxes won’t pay for the asset but will go to pay for the people and services that go into the building. Hurley, he said, will remain owner of the building, but they will lease it to Genesee Health Services.

“They will benefit because right now there is no place else to put the people who come to the ER with mental health issues,” said Russell. “They either go to jail, or McLaren or Hurley Emergency Department, so they will benefit from having a place where the people can receive the right level of care.”

Councilman Tom Martinbianco raised the question about the polls that were taken, asking how many of the respondents came from out-county and how many of those came from the City of Flint when it came to determining 81 percent of voters were in favor of the millage.

Lossing said Vanguard tapped into the state voter files with anybody who is on the permanent absentee ballot list, which in Genesee County that is about 90,000 people. They retrieved that voter information and randomly contacted those voters. In the end they had 300 completed surveys.

He said 12 percent of the 300 were City of Flint residents. The rest were dispersed around Genesee County into the townships, cities and villages to make sure they had a wide range of responses.

Mayor Duane Haskins said the mental health status in the state and the nation is a growing concern everywhere. He said with his own background in law enforcement and his wife being a nurse at Hurley Medical Center, he sees we are dealing with a mental health problem and he said he thinks going to the public with this millage proposal is “the right thing to do.”

He asked, however, if the general public will be able to use these services, or is it specific to people who are indigent who have no health coverage whatsoever?

“The crisis center is for all-comers ability to pay or age,” said Russell.

Heffner said he is not happy with the timing of the proposal, adding he thinks it is a “sneakfest” to attempt putting this on a May ballot, further questioning why it was not on last November’s ballot.

“I just want to say the timing on this is horrible. I don’t like May elections…but there’s a reason they didn’t want to do it in November. They like to sneak things through in May when they think people aren’t looking,” said Heffner. “But I believe people are looking now with these mail in ballots. I think there’s going to be a big turnout for this, I can’t predict which way it’s going to go, but I know I’m not the only one who thinks this is sneaky coming in on a May election.”

Heffner also objected to the nearly $20,000 the election will cost the city.

Russell said GHS took their proposal to Genesee County Board of Commissioners last year and asked to put this on the August or November ballot and they declined to do so. May, he said, was the next available date.

He added they are sharing the ballot with the 911 consortium charter renewal along with a Bendle schools operating millage.