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Following months of very public discord and disagreements regarding Yellowstone County’s funding of mental health services and what that should entail in the future, Yellowstone County Commissioners seem to have decided  that that they will be issuing a “request for proposals” from  health service providers for plans on how best to provide services. The proposals will be considered for county budget planning for next year.

Commissioners seemed to fall back to that approach, following a meeting Jan. 9, during which Commissioner Denis Pitman presented a draft letter for the consideration of the other county commissioners, which recommended directions to mental health agencies, including the HUB, the Crisis Center and the Mental Health Center. Pitman represents the county commissioners on the Mental Health Center board and has been its chairman.

Commissioner John Ostlund said that he thought the Mental Health board should be making recommendations to the commissioners. The purpose of most boards, with which the county deals, are to make recommendations to the commissioners, he pointed out.

Pitman said he believed that in the dealing with any entity dealing with county funds, the commissioners have an obligation to explain their expectations. He said he wanted to open a dialogue and look at ways to expand and encourage services.

As has been the case at several past meetings regarding how the county should move forward in obtaining services for the mentally ill, drug dependent and indigent people in the community, there were numerous people present to make their views known. Most of those who spoke represented at least one of a number of organizations involved in providing a variety of mental health services to that population. Who the groups are and how they overlap, interact and compete are at times confusing but their common mission of helping those who most need help, has prompted the formation of other organizations to serve the coalition and some collaborative efforts.

After the Thursday meeting, later in the day, Pitman issued an email that stated, “I would like to inform you that after our discussion today, I will be withdrawing my letter.  We will be looking at other ways in which to make the mental health system better.  Hopefully this will bring more discussion to the issues facing our community.”

He also announced his resignation as chairman and of his position on the Mental Health Center board.

In a later interview, Pitman explained his resignation saying that he kept encountering conflicts in serving as chairman of the Mental Health Center’s board with his role as a county commissioner.  “Now I can focus on providing some clarity.”

Clarity may seem necessary given many of the past public comments about the commissioners and what they are trying to do, or not do. Many comments seem to involve suspicions that there is a behind the scenes effort, to force the agencies – or at least the HUB — to locate on property owned by the Montana Rescue Mission (MRM), at the corner of Minnesota and South Broadway.

“They think my ultimate goal is to have them all operating under the MRM,” said Pitman. It’s not at all, he said. His intention in ever talking about that property was prompted by the idea that came from the MRM to centralize services of the various agencies, said Pitman. He was impressed with the idea of centralizing the services, just as he has been impressed with the idea of offering mobile services, said Pitman.

The priority is the services, he said, “It’s not about a building or location, it’s about the services that are provided.” Renting or leasing property doesn’t give the landlord authority over the operation of a business or organization, explained Pitman, going on to say that he didn’t know whether that property or any other would actually be useable in that way, but he does think it’s a good idea that the HUB be moved.

That was in fact the first recommendation in his letter: “As Commissioners of Yellowstone County, we are recommending you sell the property where the HUB is currently located, 515 North 27th Street, and consider other locations within our community.”

The letter further stated, “We would also ask that as part of the mission of the HUB that it begin assisting in the reduction of the population of the jail and begin to assist in the stabilization of those leaving the jail to reduce the level of recidivism. This was the purpose of the mental health levy, and as the numbers of the jail population increase, it is more vital than ever to address these issues.”

A third recommendation in the letter was “to investigate the mobile crisis intervention programs that seem to be working in some communities.”

The HUB, partially funded by federal and state money, operates under the auspices of the Mental Health Center. To some extent so does the Crisis Center.

Barbara Mettler, Executive Director of the South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center (MHC) told the commissioners that her organization is not opposed to relocating the HUB, if a new location “is affordable and would allow access.” She said that they would need assistance with relocating the asset. “We have been trying to recover from cuts made to their program by the State of Montana.”

She and others stated, however, that they have not been impressed with the options of relocation sites.

Mettler went on to say that she believes they are already addressing the needs of the jail to reduce the level of recidivism. “We are probably assisting half of them” in getting the services they need.

She added, “We are involved in a grant process for a mobile team.”

Mettler further stated, “We want you to be aware of what we have been doing and that we want to be a good agent” of the funding the county provides.

The Crisis Center has been saving money and has set aside about $1.5 million for the purpose of being able to build a new facility. It’s a savings that disturbs one county commissioner.

How can they be setting aside money for a new building when at the same time they claim they don’t have enough funding to provide services to the people they are supposed to be assisting? quizzes Commissioner Don Jones.

Shortly after becoming a commissioner, Jones encountered problems with the Crisis Center when its board refused to provide the county commissioners with their financial data. There seemed not to be an understanding that the county had not only the right but the obligation to know how public funds were being spent, said Jones. In accepting public funds any organization’s books become public information. In the end, Jones had to call on the County Attorney to convince the Crisis Center to release their information.

In 2010, Yellowstone County voters approved the imposition of a perpetual levy of 3.2 mills, “for provision of mental health services to assist law enforcement in maintaining the public safety, mitigating detention center populations, mitigating criminal recidivism and mitigating Medicaid payments.”

In FY 2019-20 the levy generated, $1.23 million. Funds are currently being allocated between the Community Crisis Center (84.375%) and Mental Health Center (15.625%).

The purpose of the mill levy is also a point of contention. Some have declared that despite the ballot language everyone knew it was meant for the HUB and Crisis Center, and they take exception that the county commissioners would attempt to exert any control over it.

That idea may come from wording in the resolution that called for placing the issue on the ballot. The resolution said the levy “may include funding for the Community Crisis Center and the HUB, two non-profit organizations currently offering these services.”

Not everyone believes county commissioners should have anything to say about how the county funds are used. Pam Ellis was among those commenting during the commissioners’ discussion, saying: “I don’t think it should be up to the county commissioners. . . it should come from the city and the health board and not the county commissioners.” She asked whether the city has been asked to “weigh in.”

Ellis went on to say that there appears to be a “heavy handedness,” and “the perception among many people is that you are basically dancing to the business community.” She was undoubtedly referring to the rising concerns among the downtown businesses and property owners about the impact of the indigent and mentally ill population commonly seen on the streets downtown. Just prior to the commissioners’ meeting there was another public meeting about that situation which is increasingly causing many would-be shoppers and downtown pedestrians to declare that they are afraid to go downtown.

Lisa Harmon, minister at Billings 1st Congressional Church, commented that she wanted to make sure that solutions are reaching out to the Native American community and the LGBT community. She added, “I struggle with some locations being suggested because they preclude some people being able to access them.”Patty Webster, CEO and Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Billings, said that she “feels like homeless agencies and organizations are being bullied. . . We have great concerns about people being served equally.”

She said, “We need to be at the table with you…the problems need to be solved in a collaborative effort….we need to be extremely thoughtful.”