Saturday, January 8, 2011

El Paso City Council pulls out of MHMR, but will continue funding

From the El Paso Times:

As a possible mental-health crisis looms, the City Council voted unanimously on Jan. 6 to pull out of the agency that cares for the mentally ill and disabled, saying one elected entity should bear sole responsibility for such an important service.

But some members of the council say the decision to leave El Paso Mental Health Mental Retardation is not final, and County Judge Veronica Escobar has vowed to fight it.

The council voted unanimously to terminate the agreement under which it appoints directors to MHMR and it is obligated to provide $100,000 a year to the agency. City representatives said, however, that they intended to continue helping to fund the agency.

MHMR CEO Gary Larcenaire on Wednesday warned that a crisis is coming in the summer because of cuts to programs for mental patients in crisis. The crisis could become permanent if the Texas Legislature further slashes funding for mental illness this year, Larcenaire said.

Those cuts almost certainly are coming, city Rep. Steve Ortega said.

"The message from Austin is, 'You know what, cities? You know what, counties? More of our traditional responsibilities will be on your shoulders,' " he said.

Under a 2001 agreement, the City Council, the County Commissioners Court and the county hospital district share jurisdiction over MHMR, whose $42 million annual budget comes mostly from state and federal sources.

The county commissioners are required by state law to provide mental-health services.

Until this budget year, the county put up almost $2 million for MHMR.
Now it, the city and the hospital district each contribute $100,000 as required by their agreement, MHMR spokesman Rene Hurtado said.

Some of that funding is in cash and some in in-kind services.

Each entity appoints members to the MHMR governing board, and on Thursday, the City Council considered changes to the size and composition of the board.

But city Rep. Beto O'Rourke said the arrangement is too unwieldy to govern an agency with such an important mission.

"Right now, it's so unclear and confusing for all of us," O'Rourke said.

Instead, he said, a single elected body should bear sole responsibility for MHMR.

He and Ortega said that even though the county has responsibility for mental health, they would consider allowing the city to take the reins of MHMR, giving it a status akin to that of a city department.

But City Manager Joyce Wilson said that would mean raising city taxes and cutting city services to perform a county-mandated function.

Many city representatives appeared to agree.

Before the City Council voted to give notice to back out of the MHMR agreement, members said the city would continue in-kind services to MHMR and to make Community Development Block Grants available to the agency.

And city Rep. Susie Byrd said the council could change its mind.

"It's not a done deal," she said.

When Escobar learned of the vote, she said she would try to get the council to reverse course.

Less service for El Paso's mentally ill means more of a burden on city services such as policing, she said.

"This is going to be the year of the greatest need," Escobar said. "Local governments should be committing to these collaborations rather than running away from them."

The hospital district also called on the council to keep the agreement in effect.

"The interlocal agreement between the city, the county and the hospital district has been a solid partnership for many years and one that we think should continue, especially considering the many challenges that MHMR faces today," Margaret Althoff-Olivas, a spokeswoman, said in a statement.

"We believe that the agency is a vital community service that requires the leadership of all three entities. As such, we hope that the city will reconsider its decision."