By Melinda Baird, firstname.lastname@example.org
As November 7 quickly approaches, Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton is visiting outlying cities and townships to drum up support for a 1-mill, 8-year community mental health and public safety tax proposal on the upcoming ballot. The city of Dexter—one of several municipalities without its own police department and therefore a seemingly harder sell for votes—was the first stop at the September 11 council meeting.
Clayton explained the reasoning behind the multi-layered ballot proposal language, which was narrowly approved by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners mid-July. If passed by voters, 38% of the money generated will go to Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, 38% to Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, and—here’s the sticking point—24% back to the seven jurisdictions within the county that maintain their own police force. There are no mandates attached to that rebate in terms of how those jurisdictions can spend the money.
“The law prohibits the county from dictating specifically how those individual municipalities will spend their dollars, but we are hopeful that they will spend them to support public safety and mental health in their communities,” Clayton said.
The extra tax, which would generate roughly $15.5 million the first year, is necessary, Clayton said, because deep funding cuts by the state to community mental health services has left a significant number of mental health service consumers without those services. Instead of assessment and treatment services, those in need of mental health assistance are ending up in jail or the hospital emergency room as first responders act in a capacity for which they lack resources. If approved, tax dollars would be directed to immediate crisis assessment, stabilization, prevention and mental health jail services.
Clayton said if the millage doesn’t pass, the current police contract under which some municipalities—like Dexter—receive WCSO police services won’t be sustainable. That’s because, he said, these municipalities haven’t been paying the true cost for a police service unit, which is roughly $180,000 per year, as opposed to the roughly $155,000 currently being paid. Clayton broke down what the eventual ramifications could be for the city of Dexter if the millage fails: it would need to either create its own police force, depend on Michigan State Police for police services, or pay the true cost of WCSO services.
Only councilman Raymond Tell had questions for the sheriff, and here is an excerpt of that exchange:
Tell: So Ann Arbor has already planned how they will spend their money [referring to a resolution of intent passed earlier this year by the city to prioritize pedestrian safety, affordable housing, and climate change initiatives], and that makes me think of collusion all over the place. Why do the dollars [Dexter] pays to the county for police services not count for a similar rebate? Seems like people without a police department are getting double-dipped because we don’t get credit for what we are paying.
Clayton: The argument would be you already get a rebate because you don’t pay the true cost for police services.
Tell: If the millage fails, do you believe you’d actually pull road patrol?
Clayton: I wouldn’t pull road patrol, but your contract with the county ends this year. I’ll be going before the board October 1 to ask for a four-year extension [with a roughly six percent increase in cost]. Two months ago, I believed it was a done deal. Now, I don’t believe it is. I think I can get them to sign off on a contract, but I don’t know if it’ll be four years. But even if it is four years, after that there’s no guarantees.
Tell: If the millage passes, who will be managing the mental health dollars?
Clayton: There will be an advisory group. Washtenaw Health Initiative and some of the health care systems will comprise the group that will advise the board on how to spend those dollars. There will also be some citizens of Washtenaw County in that group.
Tell: It seems like the outlying communities are being asked to subsidize a mental health initiative. Will we get the percentage we put in returned to our community?
Clayton: There are community mental health services being provided in Dexter right now. Every week. Every month. I’ll respectfully say, this is the same discussion that was had for ten years around police services—with Ann Arbor, Pittsfield and everyone else saying, “Well, we’re subsidizing the out-county because we’re paying taxes into the county but you’re taking those tax dollars and you’re helping fund police services that we don’t see. My response then and my response now is simply this: When last I checked, this was Washtenaw County. And I know we have to be mindful of our own little jurisdiction, but I’m not afforded that option. I’m looking out for Washtenaw County, and if we’re talking about wanting to count every penny that we put in as individual jurisdictions, I think we all lose.
Tell: Can you elaborate on the definition of crisis? Is it strictly a mental health issue or is it being assisted by drug and alcohol abuse?
Clayton: 50% of the people in our jail are on some type of psychotropic medication. 70% of that 50% have a co-occurring disorder, so a substance use disorder. We notice that, often times, people with mental health issues self-medicate. They’re trying to do whatever they can to address the issue, and what we find is that when the services aren’t available they turn to whatever’s available to numb their pain. The two [mental health and public safety] are connected, which is one of the reasons we put them together.
Tell: Was the 24% rebate thrown in [the proposal] to encourage the larger municipalities to participate?
Clayton: Honestly, yeah. We partnered with CMH about 18 months ago, and we said we have to work together [first responders and mental health providers] to have some kind of comprehensive and community-based strategy for our response and our prevention. It’s not just the sheriff’s office, it’s Ann Arbor [Police] and everyone else. We brought all of them into the room. They all committed to it. So in my mind as we were putting this [millage] together – even though I can’t dictate what they do with their [rebate]—my hope was always those dollars would help support the larger initiative, the county-wide strategy. So when the other municipalities say, “Well yeah, we’re on board but how are you are going to pay for it? Those [rebate] dollars were placed there to be an incentive to say, “Here’s how you come on board. We’re helping you pay for it.”
Tell: Do you think the passage of this millage will allow our public safety cost to at least level off or perhaps even decrease?
Clayton: I do not see it ever decreasing. My belief is the passage of the millage will keep the cost increases as they have been, which is one to one and one-half percent per year.
Tell: I appreciate your explanation about the 24%, but somehow global warming and other initiatives in Ann Arbor just don’t strike me as “keeping it in the county.” Actually, it is quite offensive to me they would use the money to subsidize their own radical left agenda. I envision you having great trouble in the townships and I imagine that’s why you’re here tonight.
Clayton: Well, my belief is that in the absence of facts, myths emerge. So, I’m here to share with you the facts from my perspective. At the end of the day, on November 7 people are going to cast their vote and we’ll have to deal with the outcome one way or the other.