At its meeting last night, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution condemning state attempts to raid local mental-health-fund balances to meet North Carolina’s own budget shortage. Such a loss would leave more mentally ill people in jails or hospitals for lack of proper treatment, county officials said.
“These our local dollars earned through careful management,” Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone told the board of the mental-health move. “If the state takes our fund-balance dollars, we’ll have no dollars to spend locally to fill gaps.”
Taking away the local fund balance would gut the Western Highlands Network’s programs in several areas, including crisis teams, programs to provide psychiatric help to rural residents and lab tests for indigent mentally ill people, among other vital programs, Stone said. The network covers eight counties, including Buncombe, Madison and Henderson and cooperates with many local agencies.
It would also compound an already worsening situation, as Stone noted that the state has not paid its share of local mental-health funds — some $4.4 million — for the last two months.
“We would not be able to make up that gap without our fund balance — and now they want to take that too,” she said. “This is an area where the state turned over responsibility for managing mental health to local entities and since has been steadily taking away any tools we have to effectively do that. We’d have to reduce services by $1.5 million a year. They would end up in jails, emergency rooms, impacting local social-service departments and law enforcement.”
The board, at the motion of Commissioner Carol Peterson swiftly adopted a motion to oppose the move in no uncertain terms.
“We have a moral obligation to do this,” Chair David Gantt said. “We don’t need the state ripping away money we’ve properly managed and accumulated through good business practices. It’s horrifying to hear this. Every time we have a crisis, the first ones to get kicked off the bus are children, working people and the mentally ill.”
In other developments at the meeting:
• The latest attempt to finalize an agreement between Buncombe County and the city of Asheville on consolidating their 911 services was again delayed in a 4-1 vote, as most of the board balked at a provision that would see the county paying $2.5 million to the city if Buncombe backed out of the agreement.
“This is intended to provide more rapid communications between the different agencies — and we’ve already seen that,” Fire Marshal Mack Salley said.
But so far the city and county have been operating on a preliminary 2003 agreement. Because the city at the time was forgoing state dollars it could have received from being its own 911 provider — and because it would have to build a new facility if the county terminated the agreement in the future, city officials asked for the reimbursement provision. Also, if the city chooses to back out, it will take equipment the city paid for as part of the agreement.
That didn’t sit well with Vice Chair Bill Stanley, who thought it unfair.
“So wait, if the county backs out, we pay the city $2.5 million, and if they back out, they keep the equipment,” Stanley said. “Either way, we get nothing. That doesn’t seem right.”
Peterson shared Stanley’s concerns, and asked County Manager Wanda Greene to take the agreement back to City Manager Gary Jackson and improve the provision to carrying penalties for both parties if the agreement is terminated.
However, Commissioner Holly Jones, a former City Council member, said she could see the city’s point of view and thought the agreement didn’t need to be delayed any longer.
“I’m really excited we’re going to have a big city/county win, but that price tag is because the city’s forgone dollars they would have if they didn’t go into this agreement for the greater good of the community,” Jones said. “I don’t think the county would ever back out of this agreement, but if they for some reason did, they could never get that money back. It looks a little lopsided, but there’s a reason for it.”
Peterson replied by pointing out that the county had spent millions on building and equipping the new emergency facility, including the 911 center.
Greene said that so far the system is working well for all parties and there would be no reason to terminate it, but that she would speak to Jackson.
The board voted, at Peterson’s motion, to delay the matter for a month at most. Jones said she couldn’t support that.
— David Forbes, staff writer