Government

Proposed Linn County mental health center hits late roadblock

One option to raise another $1.4M: property tax increase

The former Linn County Public Health building, seen in a 2016 photo, will be renovated to become a mental health crisis
The former Linn County Public Health building, seen in a 2016 photo, will be renovated to become a mental health crisis intervention center. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Correction: A three-year cost summary of operations for the Linn County Mental Health Access Center was created by RSM consulting services with the help of mental health care providers. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated who created the cost summary.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County supervisors were shocked to learn Wednesday that more than $1.4 million still is needed to operate a mental health crises center they had expected to open just about seven months from now.

If Linn County does not receive the needed money from other nearby counties that share in regional mental health care, supervisors could delay the project — or raise property taxes.

The “worst case scenario” of a local tax increase would be an additional 20 cents per $1,000 in assessed taxable property value, said Board of Supervisors Chairman Stacey Walker.

The board, though, would not be interested in raising taxes that much “in one fell swoop,” Walker said.

A request for the $1.4 million from East Central Region Mental Health & Disability Services — a district that includes Linn and eight other counties — would offset the net loss for mental health care providers at the center including Foundation 2, the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health and the Penn Center.

An additional $600,000 also is needed to offset the net loss of substance abuse services, which the county learned is not eligible for property tax funding from the Mental Health and Disability Services fund, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services. The substance abuse provider at the access center will be the Area Substance Abuse Council.

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Linn County Finance Director Dawn Jindrich said the county’s Finance & Budget Department was made aware of need for a decision on how to fund ongoing operational costs of the access center only this past week.

Supervisors have been talking about moving forward with a mental health access center for at least 10 months. Its director, Erin Foster, has already started.

As the county sets a fiscal 2021 budget and finalizes property tax rates, Jindrich said supervisors need to decide on funding by Jan. 20.

The county has been turned down twice on requests for funding from the East Central region, which serves Linn, Johnson, Jones, Benton, Bremer, Buchanan, Delaware, Dubuque and Iowa counties. The next East Central region governing board meeting, of which Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers is a member, is Friday.

He requested Wednesday that a discussion about the Linn County access center be added to the agenda. But Mae Hingtgen, chief executive of the region, was unsure whether the item could be added to the public meeting agenda this late.

Hingtgen said mental health regions are not required to provide funding for access centers, which are facilities that deal with immediate mental health and substance abuse needs — avoiding the more expensive jail or hospital stays — and that connect clients with longer-term treatment or housing.

“My goal still is to get the region to support this,” Rogers said on conference call to the Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday.

In a three-year cost summary created by RSM with the help of mental health care providers, operational expenses annually for the access center would be over $3 million, including payroll, administration and overhead.

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Supervisors set aside $3.5 million for the access center in February 2018. The money was to fund renovation of an existing space, the first year of operations and some administrative costs. The rest was expected to be funded by the East Central region.

If the supervisors decide to increase property taxes instead, Jindrich proposed they be an additional estimated 6 cents per $1,000 from the general fund and an additional 14 cents per $1,000 from the property tax levied for mental health services.

In light of the funding question, the supervisors Wednesday tabled finalizing a contract to renovate a building for the center, which formerly was the Linn County Public Health building at 501 13th St. NW in Cedar Rapids.

Under the $1.7 million contract, Garling Construction would start work Jan. 2 and tentatively finish in June.

A vote on the contract was tabled until Monday. It and further discussion about funding the center will be on the board’s 10 a.m. Monday agenda.

Supervisor Brent Oleson said he is “officially skeptical” of the access center project, having previously pressed for more financial details.

“Is it something the county should be getting into, providing those services with taxpayer dollars?” he asked. “This could turn into a (financial) black hole every year.”

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

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