The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to borrow $6.8 million in mental health taxes to build a new jail this week. The oversight committee that is tasked with making recommendations to the Board about how to spend the money did not recommend the loan. The Board declined to fund a proposal for addiction treatment and recovery that did have a recommendation.
Measure B, the voter-approved mental health sales tax initiative, has accumulated $6.3 million in unallocated funds, plus $5.8 million in a capital facilities prudent reserve account. The exact terms of the loan, including the interest rate and payback plan, have not been worked out. Sara Pierce, the Board appointee to replace Treasurer Tax Collector Auditor Controller Chamise Cubbison, told the Board early in the day on Tuesday that the county’s credit rating could be imperiled, which would reduce its ability to go after grants.
Two weeks ago, a review team consisting of Measure B committee members and personnel from the county’s Behavioral Health Department submitted a recommendation that the Ford Street Project in Ukiah be funded for all or a portion of $4.1 million that it wanted for a sober living drug treatment facility. Supervisors put off a decision then, on the grounds that they didn’t know how much money they would need for the jail. Instead, they formed an ad hoc committee to research the finances of Measure B. Ford Street then reduced its request to $2.6 million.
Both supervisors on the ad hoc were present at last week’s Measure B meeting, where retired Sheriff Tom Allman demanded that the oversight committee vote in favor of a statement recognizing the importance of a behavioral health wing in the new jail. He insisted that the item had nothing to do with finances, but declined to amend his proposed statement to clarify the point.
In 2017, the county got a $25 million grant from the state to build a special needs housing unit and visitors center for confidential attorney visits. The housing unit was supposed to accommodate inmates with medical and mental health needs, including geriatric offenders with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and mobility impairments. There is no mention of a behavioral health wing in the grant application, though letters of support do mention a “mental health unit.” The new jail is supposed to include room for more educational, treatment, and religious programming, in hopes of reducing recidivism. But the project stalled for years as the state fire marshal delayed approval. Cost overruns mounted, even as the design was pared down. The jail has not broken ground yet.
On Tuesday, the Board did not wait for the ad hoc report on Measure B finances before agreeing to borrow all the unallocated funds, and more.
Captain Joyce Spears, the commander of the jail, told the Board about the mental health needs of the current inmates. She reported that on Monday, 126 of them, or half the population, were on medications to treat mental illness. Sixteen percent of the inmates in the jail are severely mentally ill. She only has one room for two inmates with severe medical illnesses, one of whom is terminal. Twenty-five patients are receiving medication for withdrawal from addictive drugs. In the geriatric population, “I have seven individuals who are over the age of 65,” she told the Board. “That’s a lot.”
Sheriff Matt Kendall added that the jail has a tough time meeting state requirements. Allman, who calls himself “the architect of Measure B,” weighed in. “The jail does not want to take any more mentally ill inmates,” he said. “But the law doesn’t allow us that option. The law says we have to. And so, from 5 pm on Friday to 8 am on Monday, the sheriff’s office and police departments are literally the mental health department for all 911 calls. We don’t have the option. Because we don’t have a puff (Psychiatric Health Facility) yet.”
Supervisor John Haschak presented the options. “It seems that this behavioral health wing of the new jail is a must-have,” he said. “We have to do it…It seems that the only two pots of money that are out there are the reserve, which is about $10 million, and the other is a loan from Measure B.”
Mark Donegan, a member of the Behavioral Health Advisory Board, which supports funding the jail and Ford Street, objected. “If you have two pools, use the other one,” he said. “I didn’t write Measure B, but I read it…The intent, from what I read, was behavioral health services. It didn’t say for the jail. The intent of the law was what they call SUDT (Substance Use Disorder Treatment), which is Ford Street and all those other ancillary programs. Without those, that’s how people end up in jail. We need both, absolutely.”
Hours later, the Board voted 4-1, with Supervisor Maureen Mulheren dissenting, not to fund Ford Street, because of anticipated construction cost overruns building the puff, or psychiatric health facility. The contractor’s current estimate is to get the project out to bid early next year, and to be done building it two years from now. Supervisors expressed outright disbelief when presented with this information.
While the puff was the centerpiece of the campaigning for Measure B, it is the last big-ticket item to be purchased or built with the funds. Haschak worried that the original estimate of $19.6 million from the year 2021 would grow by at least a million a year due to inflation. That will nearly deplete the $5.8 million prudent reserve, especially if the county, which is in a shaky financial position, borrows half a million from it after borrowing the entirety of the unallocated funds.
The county also got a $9.3 million grant from the state to build the puff. That money will be used to reimburse Measure B, which has budgeted the $19.6 million. Reimbursements will be based on deliverables, but Haschak sounded dubious about the certainty of getting reimbursements for the full $9.3 million.
Mulheren thought it would be possible to fund Ford Street as well as the puff, but Haschak summed up the view of the Board. “There are so many unknowns, with the puff, with the construction costs and timelines and all that,” he said. “It just seems at this point that we cannot be funding the substance use disorder treatment proposal. It’s unfortunate.”