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Mental health team faces funding crisis

Friday, September 7, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Mental health professionals accompany police officers to all SWAT calls in Houston and Seattle, but Austin’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, which operates alongside the Austin Police Department, does not accompany officers on high-risk calls, such as when a weapon is involved.

In addition, Austin’s crisis outreach team does not work at night, when many mental health-related calls occur, according to a draft audit from the Office of the City Auditor. The report also says that the team “was not available to cover 22 percent of the mental health related calls” during the time period studied, May 2017 and March 2018.

City Auditor Corrie Stokes provided City Council with a summary of her auditors’ findings during the budget work session on Thursday, as Council was considering a request for funding in the upcoming budget.

The audit found that “APD’s partnership with Integral Care brings needed mental health expertise in alignment with the best practices noted above. However, they are not always available to bring these resources to every call or to crisis calls where this expertise may be needed most.”

According to the draft report, APD and Integral Care, which sponsors the crisis outreach team, say the team is useful “where an officer’s presence is no longer required or where the officer’s presence may be detrimental to the situation.”

APD Assistant Chief Justin Newsom told the Austin Monitor that APD has at least 160 officers trained to deal with mental health issues but does not have mental health professionals on staff to deal with calls related to threatened suicides and other mental health issues.

He said that APD receives about 12,000 mental health-related calls a year. “In a perfect world, having sufficient staff properly trained and qualified for certain tasks is always a good idea. … We would all support having mental health professionals on the scene quickly. How do you do that?”

In the meantime, the mobile crisis team seems to be facing a crisis of its own. The team has been funded through what is known as the Section 1115 Medicaid waiver. Changes in that program mean that that funding was cut off on Aug. 31.

Integral Care has asked Austin and Travis County to make up for those lost funds. According to city staff, Travis County is willing to contribute 40 percent of the funding, or $760,000. If Austin picked up the rest, $1.14 million, that would enable the team to continue its services for the next year.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo is a strong proponent of funding the mental health crisis team. She told the Monitor on Thursday that funding the team, adding money to assist the homeless, and assisting the Austin Independent School District are her three top priorities for the budget. In particular, Tovo said she wants to add funding for the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and to enhance security there. She said she and her colleagues are coming up with items that can be cut in order to add more services for the homeless.

Tovo also said she would support a study of how much it is costing the city to regulate short-term rentals and whether the program is paying for itself.

Council Member Ora Houston warned during Thursday’s meeting that once an agency or group receives money from the city, they rarely return to say they’ve gotten funding from somewhere else.

Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told the Monitor that the tax increase needed to raise the $1.14 million requested by Integral Care would increase the tax rate by less than one-tenth of a penny.

But those pennies add up. Another favorite topic for some Council members, including Mayor Steve Adler, is increasing the homestead exemption for the disabled and people 65 and older. According to staff calculations, if the exemption were increased to $90,000 from the current level of $85,500, city tax revenue would be decreased by $770,000, assuming a 6 percent tax rate increase. If the exemption were raised to $88,000, city revenues would be decreased by $430,000.

According to a study by the University of Texas School of Law, the across-the-board exemption is more equitable than the percentage exemption. Under the current exemption, the homeowner with a $150,000 home and the homeowner with a $2 million home each realized the tax savings of $380 under the 2017 tax rates.

It should come as no surprise that Council members Ellen Troxclair and Jimmy Flannigan want to stick with the budget presented by City Manager Spencer Cronk, with no additional funding unless it’s found in the city’s couch cushions. However, they might both be inclined to vote for the additional exemptions.

Houston said she wants to stick as closely as possible to the manager’s budget also, pointing out that the way Council is doing the budget this year is very different than the way it has done it in the past three years.

She said she would not be offering any amendments and hoped that Council members could pass a budget as close to the numbers presented by staff as possible. If they start adding amendments, she said they would slip back into the old method of doing things, which is not something she wants to see.

Council Member Delia Garza expressed her gratitude to the manager and staff for the things they have done in line with her priorities. She said she would be inclined to make the motion on Tuesday to adopt the manager’s budget. “And if there’s not six votes, there’s not six votes. But I was happy with what was presented.” In particular, Garza, a former firefighter, said she was very pleased that the budget includes two new much-needed fire stations.

Garza said later via email: “One of my priorities continues to be ensuring that the City allocates enough funding to our Health and Human Services Department. We cannot let our most vulnerable residents slip through the cracks by failing to address their needs.

“I have been working hard to address the lack of grocery stores in southeast Austin. To that end, the budget will also include funding for a grocery store market study – a low-cost step to put us on a more concrete path toward increasing grocery store options for our residents.

“I am very pleased that the budget will include funding to help develop early childhood education resources. Investing in families early can help prevent so many of the challenges we face as a city, like violent crime, unmet physical and mental healthcare needs, and inadequate access to education and economic opportunities,” Garza concluded.

Photo by John Flynn.

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