The Measure B committee continued a discussion that began at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, about the possibility of using Measure B funds for the behavioral health wing of the new jail.
Retired sheriff Tom Allman, who continues to represent the sheriff’s office on the committee, urged his fellow members to declare the importance of providing mental health and substance misuse services at the new jail, which hasn’t broken ground yet. He insisted that the endorsement he sought did not include a financial commitment, though he declined to change the wording of his motion to clarify the point.
Last week, the Board of Supervisors put off a decision about awarding $4.1 million in Measure B funds to the Ford Street Project to build a sober living facility. Instead, they formed an ad hoc committee to research the Measure B budget, including how much money from the voter-approved tax initiative can be used for the behavioral health wing of the future jail. County Counsel expects to have an opinion about whether that is an allowable use or not at the Board of Supervisors meeting on October 31st, when the Board will consider the question of how to fund the construction of the new jail. In the meantime, the Ford Street Project’s request has gone down to $2.625 million.
Allman introduced his item, which was listed on the agenda as, “Discussion and Possible Action Regarding Request for Support from Measure B Committee for construction of the Behavioral Health Wing of the Mendocino County Jail.”
“I don’t want this to be a contentious conversation,” he warned; “But it may be a contentious conversation…The sole purpose of this agenda item is to show the Board of Supervisors that we, as the members of the Measure B committee, are aware of the efforts being taken to construct a behavioral health wing of our correctional facility, and this behavioral health wing of our correctional facility is necessary for the improvement of the quality of life and services for victims of mental illness who are incarcerated in our county.”
He appeared to take umbrage when committee members Shannon Riley and Sherrie Ebyam asked for clarity about the financial implications. “I did not hear any request for financial support,” Riley said. As Allman began to speak over her, saying, “That’s because there wasn’t any,” she continued: “Which I’m a little bit confused by, given the conversation that the Board of Supervisors had last week. So I want to be very clear that you are not asking the Measure B committee to allocate funds for the project.”
“You are correct,” Allman confirmed. But when Riley told him she would support a motion clarifying that, “We support this in words only. That we are not recommending the allocation of funds,” Allman balked. “I’m not changing the wording of my motion with your request….I’m not bringing up finances,” he insisted. “I’m telling our Board of Supervisors that a behavioral health wing of the new jail is important. And if you don’t think it’s important, by all means. This is the time for you to tell the public that you don’t think this is important.”
Ebyam objected to the characterization, saying, “I totally support the idea of a behavioral health wing at the jail. That’s not the issue. It’s the word support, which is vague. ”
Allman interrupted, arguing that, “Support is support. We support you…I have some incredible news for us: that we are not in charge of money. Not one member of this committee has the awesome responsibility of spending one tax dollar without it going to the Board of Supervisors first.”
During the course of an earlier discussion, County Counsel Christian Curtis reminded the committee members that they are an advisory body only, making non-binding recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. And, in his opinion, the Board doesn’t even need recommendations from the Measure B committee to make spending decisions. “This committee does have the authority to go ahead and make recommendations to the Board,” he acknowledged. “But I don’t see anything in the ordinance, and I don’t know that there could be anything in the ordinance, that would prevent the Board from taking up items on its own.”
Supervisor John Haschak, who is on the ad hoc committee researching Measure B to make a decision about the Ford Street Project’s proposal, said the Board is fully aware of the importance of the new jail.
“We have a couple buildings in the county that we have to complete,” he told the committee. “One is the behavioral health wing of the jail. We have to see that through.” The other is the puff, or the psychiatric health facility that is being built on Whitmore Lane in Ukiah, partly using Measure B funds. Haschak estimated that the costs to build the puff will grow by a million dollars a year. The original estimate was a little over $19 million. As for the jail, he said, “We just found out there’s a cost overrun at the jail that we don’t have the money for, and so we’re trying to figure out where any pots of money are that could fund that.” He told the committee that the original $25 million grant from the state was supposed to fund 96% of the construction. Now, he said, the cost of the behavioral health wing is upwards of $44 million. “So the county has had to cover everything from the 25 up to the 44,” he concluded.
Haschak confirmed Riley’s question that, “The county prioritizes this project. The county must finish the jail project. Correct?” Riley went on to say, “I don’t really understand the point of this agenda item, or why the county needs Measure B to say that we support this project to the Board of Supervisors. They clearly understand the importance of this project.”
Ebyam also stated her uncertainty, saying, “I’m not quite sure what the issue is about inserting that it’s not an endorsement of using Measure B funds. I don’t understand what the resistance is to that.”
Riley said cost overruns at the jail are not an issue for the committee. “And I want to point back to several documents that we should all be very familiar with,” she said, opening a folder that was heavily annotated with small colored sticky notes. “Including the official argument in favor of Measure B, adopted with the ballot, presented to all of the voters of Mendocino County, which specifically states that jail is not the solution. It specifically says our county jail shouldn’t be the largest psychiatric facility in the region. The ordinance, the ballot measure, the Kemper Report, which, by the way, was adopted as our strategic plan, clearly prioritize the expansion of substance use disorder treatment facilities. And to date, we have spent zero dollars on it.”
Committee member Jo Bradley, representing the Behavioral Health Advisory Committee, said the community needs both the Ford Street treatment facility and a jail that offers treatment to mentally ill inmates. “I would like to see Ford Street go forward,” she said. “Ford Street’s down to $2 million. Give the other $4 million for the jail project. And that way, everybody gets taken care of.” There are $6.3 million of unallocated monies in the Measure B fund.
Jacque Williams, the Executive Director of the Ford Street Project, agreed that she does not believe her project is in competition with the construction of the behavioral health wing at the new jail. “I know that’s a terrible thing to say, that we need both,” she said. “But to move one thing ahead at the expense of the other, it just keeps us out of balance. It was unfortunate, the way that it was communicated by some of the members of the Board at the Board meeting, because it made it sound adversarial. I work with the people in the jail that bring people into treatment. As you do, Jenine (Dr. Jenine Miller is the Director of the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Department). We’re on the re-entry team. The people that really serve this population understand that these needs are complementary. And it’s very difficult to say, this is more important than this.”
But committee member Donna Moschetti, representing the National Alliance of Mental Illness, chose to abstain from the vote, saying she worried the Board of Supervisors could take an endorsement as “carte blanche.” She told the committee that, “NAMI is all for the mental health wing. I also agree that the Board of Supervisors should already know that they have to do this. And they should know just by listening to this conversation that we’re all in favor.”
The motion barely passed, with five voting to endorse the statement proposed by Allman, committee members Sherrie Ebyam and Riley dissenting because they found the motion vague, and Bradley and Moscheti abstaining.