Government

Linn County gets green light to open mental health center

9-county region increases levy to support centers in Linn and Johnson

Erin Foster is director of the first Linn County Mental Health Access Center, which will be at 501 13th St NW in Cedar R
Erin Foster is director of the first Linn County Mental Health Access Center, which will be at 501 13th St NW in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A nine-county mental health board voted Thursday to support crisis intervention centers in Linn and Johnson by increasing the levy that’s assessed each of the region’s counties starting in fiscal 2021.

The East Central mental health region approved a 3-cent increase to the levy rate to provide $1.3 million in operational costs to the centers in the first year. The increase, from 30.91 cents to 34 cents, is assessed to each county based on population.

Dubuque County Supervisor Ann McDonough, who serves on the regional panel, voted against the increase.

“I think lives will be changed as a result” of the vote, said Emily Bloom, chief executive officer of Foundation 2, which will provide mental health services at the Linn County Access Center. “You don’t get to see that every day, but we do,” she said following the board’s decision.

Iowa is divided into 14 mental health regions, and the counties in them impose property taxes to support their proportional share of the region’s levy.

Thursday’s vote does not necessarily mean property taxes will rise because of it — counties could use other funds. But Linn County also faces a problem with paying for substance abuse treatment at the center, and will talk next week about a tax increase.

Linn and Johnson counties already have started work to bring the centers online.

Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers, who serves on the regional panel, fielded questions from the board about why two neighboring counties chose to create these two centers.

Rogers said both counties have populations large and diverse enough to support the centers.

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In discussions, law enforcement officers from the counties and their major cities voiced an unwillingness to drive out of county to take people in crisis elsewhere.

Law enforcement in smaller counties, however, already are driving people in need to hospitals and jails in the larger Linn and Johnson counties, Rogers said.

Linn County Access Center Director Erin Foster said she met with Jones County Sheriff Greg Graver, who said a center in Linn County would be a better option than taking people to jail or sitting with them in the emergency room.

“It didn’t matter to him that he was coming to Cedar Rapids or crossing county lines — he was 100 percent for it,” Foster said.

Johnson County Supervisor Pat Heiden, who also serves on the regional panel, said the board shouldn’t get caught in the “what ifs” of access centers when they know there is a need for more mental health services in their communities.

Eight community members spoke in favor of access centers during a public comment period.

Leslie Carpenter said she has a family member with a “serious brain disorder” who has been hospitalized 20 times. “A simple vote for funding can help save and improve lives,” she said.

Diane Brecht, an East Central Region Advisory Committee member from Delaware County, asked the board to “take a well-informed leap.”

“Mental illness is a human condition we see daily,” Brecht said. “We’re seeing struggles in the farming community like we saw in the 1980s with an increase in suicide. (Access centers) are a tremendous alternative for ways we provide mental health services. It is a proven model that works. In the long term, it will benefit you financially.”

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Brecht, whose father died by suicide last summer, said, “maybe if these services had been available, he would still be here today.”

Foster and Johnson County access center project manager Matt Miller presented preliminary budgets for the centers before the board voted on the levy rate.

Linn County asked for $857,043 from the region for the first year. Linn County is contributing $661,402 to the center for substance use disorder treatment, which doesn’t quality for dollars from the Iowa Department of Human Services.

The Linn County Board of Supervisors will meet Monday to discuss raising the supplemental property tax levy, which would allow the county to fund the substance abuse services.

Rogers said he will propose it by 6 cents, which would bring in about $600,000.

Johnson County, where the center is expected to open in December, asked for $491,827 from the region for their first seven months of operation. The county would contribute $468,956 in substance use disorder funding.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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