Traverse City News and Events

GT County Commissioners Vote To Leave Northern Lakes Community Mental Health

By Beth Milligan | May 5, 2022

Grand Traverse County commissioners voted Wednesday to dissolve the county's relationship with the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority (CMH), giving the county at least a year to actually exit the agency and create its own alternate system for delivering mental health services to residents.

While the dissolution vote caught some commissioners by surprise, as Wednesday's meeting agenda only listed a "discussion of community mental health services for Grand Traverse County" with no proposed motions or action, most commissioners and county administration said the county's relationship with CMH was highly dysfunctional and needed to change immediately. County Administrator Nate Alger said the county has repeatedly expressed concerns to CMH about the level of services it provides, including at the Grand Traverse County Jail, and there has been a "refusal on CMH's leadership's part to even acknowledge" those concerns. "They've failed us for decades, in my opinion," Alger said. "It's time to do something." Undersheriff Michael Shea also told commissioners there is a "dire issue" with the delivery of mental health services in the county. "We are not meeting the needs of our people," he said.

Commissioners Betsy Coffia and Bryce Hundley agreed substantial changes needed to be made to the county's mental health services, but worried about making the significant decision of withdrawing from CMH without advance notice and a "process of public engagement," in Hundley's words. "It's one of the largest institutions in the county," Hundley said, calling the move to replace the county's mental health delivery system a "huge fricking thing to bite off." Hundley added: "I feel like we need to start the discussion...but not this particular motion to dissolve the thing." Coffia added she wanted to make sure county commissioners "do no harm"  in the process of withdrawing. Alger and Shea both emphasized that there can be no gap in services to patients and that CMH would be required to provide services until the day the county officially leaves and launches its new system. "There can't be a lapse in services," Shea said.

Commissioner Darryl Nelson - who asked to have the mental health discussion item on the agenda and made the motion to dissolve the county's relationship with CMH - acknowledged it will be a "huge lift" for the county to create a new mental health services system. "I don't know what the right answer is," Nelson said of a potential service model that could replace CMH. But he expressed confidence the county could "find a better solution," adding: "We're not providing what's adequate to what we owe our citizens." Commissioner Penny Morris, who sits on the CMH board, agreed. "We have an opportunity here to do a better service to our community," she said. "These problems have been going on for well over a decade. We're in a dysfunctional relationship with our community mental health authority...I think the cost is much greater if we don't do something."

Commissioners voted 6-1 – with Hundley opposed – to dissolve the county’s relationship with CMH and engage outside legal counsel to give appropriate notices to local and state agencies of the county’s intent to leave CMH and maintain and expand mental health services through “alternate means.” Alger said he’s already researched law firms who could assist the county through the transition and will bring back an attorney-drafted letter for commission approval prior to sending out the county’s formal notice of withdrawal. Once CMH and other required agencies receive the notice, it will kick off a one-year countdown to Grand Traverse County actually leaving the authority. Once the county leaves, it will be required to start immediately providing mental health services to residents under a new delivery model.

Grand Traverse County is one of six counties that entered a joint agreement in 2003 to provide mental health services to their residents by founding CMH, with Leelanau, Crawford, Missaukee, Roscommon, and Wexford counties also in the authority. Alger told commissioners that “once any county leaves the authority, the authority ceases to exist” – meaning other counties will either need to reestablish CMH under a new operating agreement or launch their own alternate mental health systems. CMH Interim Chief Executive Officer Joanie Blamer could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Commission Chair Rob Hentschel noted that Grand Traverse County currently contributes $682,000 to CMH’s annual operating budget. Hentschel said he was comfortable paying that amount or even higher if needed for a new system if it meant better mental health services for residents. County commissioners unanimously passed a second motion Wednesday to have administrators seek community input, including from local groups and nonprofits that work in mental health services, on a new model and to engage “qualified consultants” to bring recommendations back to the board.

Sheriff Tom Bensley, who said he “strongly” applauded the county’s decision to leave CMH, asked commissioners to consider a model that includes a diversion center, mobile crisis team, and jail services within its design. “Those things are extremely important in our business,” he said. Bensley also encouraged commissioners to keep the project solely focused on Grand Traverse County and not involve neighboring counties in the new system. Alger told commissioners that staff will keep the board updated as the process moves forward and will work to ensure that Grand Traverse County has the right system in place when it ultimately leaves CMH. “We will make every effort to take a purposeful approach to this to ensure we do it correctly,” he said.

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