County acts to bail out mental health department

11/12/2013 2:21 PM

11/12/2013 2:21 PM

Financial problems in the Johnson County mental health department will be solved at least through the end of the year by an emergency funding measure that the county commission approved last week.

The commission unanimously voted Thursday to give the county manager’s office authority to pay the department’s bills from reserve funds through the end of this year and into the first half of next year. The county manager’s office also will oversee the financial management of the department, which is under the temporary supervision of Chad VonAhnen, director of Johnson County Developmental Supports. The mental health department’s current director, Maureen Womack, is on administrative leave.

The emergency funds transfers are expected to become necessary because the mental health department is projected to run about $900,000 into the red by the end of the year. The money will be disbursed as needed from general fund reserves.

Officials at the meeting likened the bailout to a rescue from financial quicksand or a secure rock in the middle of a rapids. It will resolve immediate shortfalls in the mental health budget, but will not address larger problems that resulted from the loss of caseworkers and clinicians who can generate fees from mental health clients and their insurers. The department has lost over a quarter of its fee-generating employees since 2009.

VonAhnen told commissioners that his immediate focus will be on stabilizing the staffing and reassuring employees that the county is committed to providing high quality mental health services. Mental health center staff members see around 10,000 clients a year, mainly for serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Many of those clients are in poverty, with about 44 percent making less than $10,000 per year.

There was little disagreement at Thursday’s commission meeting that the county would have to bail the department out of its troubles. “We must authorize additional funding in order to keep the agency together,” said Chairman Ed Eilert. “We are responsible for the operation of that agency. The buck stops with us.”

Michael Ashcraft agreed to help the department out in the short term, but said he would like to see the money paid back once it’s returned to financial good health.

Commissioner Steve Klika pointed out that after VonAhnen’s temporary leadership time is up in less than 80 days, another temporary leader will probably have to take over the department. “What message does that send?” he asked.

Klika recommended a somewhat sterner approach in which the county would take over the financial duties currently handled by the mental health governing board. That would clear the way for a new advisory board to take over from the current governing board.

However, the commission did not change the governing board’s status. Eilert said that option would still be open if the current mental health board and county manager’s office can’t agree on how to steer the department out of financial crisis.

Mental health is not the only county department a little short of cash at the end of the year. The sheriff’s department is also seeking up to $4 million to cover medical and personal services connected with the jail and overtime of the department’s staff.

The county commission will consider transferring about $1.5 million from the economic development capital project account and another $2.5 million by reallocating some public safety sales tax reserves. The economic development capital project holds the county’s portion of a quarter-cent sales tax that was levied from 2006 to 2008.

The sheriff’s department shortfall has its roots in personnel cutbacks of 2009 and the additional staffing expenses that went with expanded jail facilities at the Adult Detention Center near Gardner and the Central Booking facility in downtown Olathe.

In March, after some consternation, the commission conditionally approved an extra $600,000 for the sheriff’s office to add medical staff for inmates at those two facilities. The commission told Sheriff Frank Denning that he would have to try first to make cuts from his own budget before getting approval at the end of the year.

Denning told the commission last week that despite his best efforts, the extra money will still be needed. He also asked for another $3.4 million primarily for overtime incurred because of understaffing.

The sheriff department staff is down about by about 92 full-time employees since cutbacks in 2009. The overtime associated with those employees also was cut. But overtime can only be cut so far because public safety employees are needed around the clock, he said.

“We went into the 2013 budget hearings knowing we would be here,” in the last quarter, Denning told the commission. If nothing changes, “I’ll be standing here in ’14 in the fourth quarter with very similar problems.”

He said overtime costs could be cut by adding more employees.

The commission is set to decide on the sheriff’s budget at its meeting Thursday.

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