Linn County Mental Health Access Center aims to open in February

It offers alternative to jail, emergency rooms for people in crisis

This will be the main entrance to the new Linn County Access Center, 501 13th St. NW, Cedar Rapids, which the county aim
This will be the main entrance to the new Linn County Access Center, 501 13th St. NW, Cedar Rapids, which the county aims to have open in February. The building formerly housed Linn County Public Health. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The new Linn County Mental Health Access Center is hoping to be fully operational by early February.

The opening originally was scheduled for early this year, but remodeling of the center, at 501 13th St. NW, was delayed by the pandemic and then the Aug. 10 derecho.

The building formerly housed Linn County Public Health, which moved to the new Harris building at 10th Avenue and Seventh Street SE.

Erin Foster, the access center’s director, said contractors finished construction work at the center the week before Christmas.

“Now, other companies are coming, getting fire alarms tested, security figured out,” Foster said. “Once that’s completed, we can get temporary occupancy and that could be as early as next week.”

With a temporary occupancy permit, the center can get health care providers moved in.

The center will work with law enforcement, schools and hospitals to provide a place — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — to help people in crisis as an alternative to placing them in jail cells or hospital rooms.

Foundation 2, the Abbe Center and the Penn Center will provide mental health services at the Linn County center.

How it’s funded

The counties in each of Iowa’s 14 mental health regions levy property taxes to support mental health, disability services and the regional centers. The East Central Region covers Linn, Johnson, Benton, Bremer, Buchanan, Delaware, Dubuque, Iowa and Jones counties.

The East Central regional board in January voted to support opening access centers in Linn and Johnson counties, increasing the regional property tax levy by 3 cents — to 34 cents per $1,000 in property value — for the 2021 fiscal year.

The increase will provide $1.3 million to cover the centers’ first year of operational costs. The levy is divided among the nine counties, based on population.

Linn County provided $3.5 million in startup funding for the center.

Foster said obtaining funding and finding staff is always an issue in the behavioral health world.

“We always have a more difficult time to get good people to stay within an organization,” Foster said. “Anytime you discuss anything mental health, it’s always funding. It’s not a business that makes money.”

‘Need is there’

Starting a new program like the access center, Foster added, means starting with zero data.

“You can look at law enforcement data and other data, but it’s a new program and hasn’t been done before,” Foster said. “However, we know the need is there, and there’s a strong case that we are going to be busy and we are going to be full a lot of the time.”

Foster said that once the center can quantify the diversion of clients from jails and emergency rooms, a strong case can be made for more funding locally, regionally and from the state.

“I think access centers are going to be a pivotal piece to get people connected, not just to mental health services, but other services that can also have an impact on people’s mental health.”

Foster said a virtual open house will be held before the center opens, once that date is settled.

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