District attorney, sheriff say criminal justice system is being neglected
The Plumas County Mental Health Department has between $4.9 million and $14 million in reserve funds, depending on interpretation of the law.
So when Mental Health Director Peter Livingston last week asked the county’s Community Corrections Partnership (CCP) executive committee for more than $62,000 to pay for an additional therapist to work with the jail, it didn’t sit well with some committee members.
Not only did the committee decline to act on Livingston’s request at the March 27 meeting, the sheriff and district attorney also accused mental health of neglecting the jail population.
It was an allegation Livingston strongly denied.
District Attorney David Hollister told Livingston that mental health is “picking and choosing” who gets service.
“You have a 70-person waiting list, and a reserve of $6 million. Those numbers don’t add up to me. And I don’t think we are doing the best we can as a county.”
David HollisterDistrict Attorney
“I think there is a bigger discussion about the policy,” Hollister said, “about whether or not county departments, with taxpayer money, can choose or select the populations they serve.”
Hollister, Livingston and the rest of the executive committee debated mental health’s role in the community and how it should use its large reserve fund.
Several county employees in the audience, including Supervisors Lori Simpson and Jon Kennedy, contributed to the discussion.
The CCP Executive Committee, which is in charge of managing the county’s Assembly Bill 109 Inmate Realignment program, includes both Hollister and Livingston, as well as Sheriff Greg Hagwood, Public Defender Douglas Prouty, Superior Court Designee Deborah Norrie and Acting Chief Probation Officer Daniel Prince, who chairs the committee.
Mental health’s request
The heated debate began after Livingston recommended that the CCP allocate $62,676 for each of the next two years to fund a second behavioral health therapist for the county’s Alternative Sentencing Program.
Livingston said that mental health services at the jail are the sheriff’s responsibility and that the mental health department hasn’t been billing the sheriff for providing services to date.
When Sheriff Hagwood pointed out mental health’s reserves, Livingston said the $4.9 million is set aside mainly to pay for out-of-county hospitalizations and emergencies.
In addition to the $4.9 million reserve, mental health has another $1 million that was earmarked two years ago by the Board of Supervisors to help supplement the county’s AB 109 funding from the state.
Mental health also has an $8 million reserve fund of money collected by the state’s Mental Health Services Act.
The MHSA is referred to as “the millionaire’s tax.” That’s because it is a 1 percent tax on California residents who earn more than $1 million a year. That tax revenue is distributed to counties for mental health services. However, counties can’t use that money without the state’s approval.
Everyone involved in last week’s discussion agreed the $8 million in MHSA money was essentially off limits.
The debate revolved around the other $5.9 million.
“And … that’s a lot of money,” Sheriff Hagwood said.
Livingston agreed. But he argued that tapping the reserve fund for non-emergencies would be irresponsible.
“To fund an ongoing program out of a reserve fund, to me, doesn’t make sense,” Livingston told the committee. “It’s like if one of us had an emergency fund and we started paying our entertainment and food bills out of our emergency fund. Pretty soon our emergency fund is gone.”
Livingston said the cost for a one-year stay in a state mental hospital is $250,000. If mental health’s reserves were used up, he said the county would be responsible for any additional bills.
Supervisor Simpson said mental health spent $220,000 last year for out-of-county hospitalization.
Hollister countered that if a patient received long-term care outside of the county, it shouldn’t affect the emergency fund. “You budget for that,” he said.
The district attorney argued that mental health should spend some of its reserves to provide services for residents who need help right now and aren’t getting it. He cited mental health’s current 70-person waiting list.
Hollister said the cost of not providing services is more than dollars and cents.
“In my mind, the cost of this is a 14-year-old girl in Quincy, and an Eastern Plumas Health Care patient who is having some difficulties,” Hollister said. “Those are the costs that I see.”
The DA was referring to a recent teen suicide and an out-of-control EPHC patient who was shot and killed by a deputy.
“Mr. Hollister: You bring up a 14-year-old girl, which leaves some sort of implication floating in the air,” Livingston responded.
“Those are my concerns,” Hollister said.
“Those are our concerns,” Livingston said. “We deal with suicidal people day in and day out.
“How do we count the number of people that don’t commit suicide?” Livingston continued. “Is there acknowledgement of that?
“If something bad happens, we are to blame. And this is what I am tired of from the criminal justice people. Mental health getting blamed.”
“You have a 70-person waiting list, and a reserve of $6 million,” Hollister responded. “Those numbers don’t add up to me. And I don’t think we are doing the best we can as a county.”
Livingston said mental health could do a better job if it had more staff. But he said he can’t even fill the openings he has because of the county’s low pay scale.
“I know that the therapists in mental health have been overloaded and burnt out,” Livingston said. “And 70 people on the waiting list is absolutely unacceptable to me. It is one of the hardest things that I have to do right now.”
Livingston said he agreed mental health’s reserve is “too big.” He said he wants to use some of the money to help the community.
“I think that a considerable portion of that money should get spent,” Livingston said. “In the upcoming three-year plan, I intend to figure out how to mobilize some of those dollars into the community.
“I would like to do some good things in the community that would benefit every population, including criminal justice,” Livingston told the district attorney. “So I agree with you, in that regard.”
Livingston said that having five different mental health directors in the past two years, coupled with the loss of key personnel, has only added to the department’s challenges. “Nobody has been (director) long enough to mobilize resources,” he said.
After an hour of debate, committee chairman Prince asked for a motion to approve mental health’s request for $62,676.
No motion was made.
The CCP committee did approve four agenda items for the Board of Supervisors’ consideration.