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Washington County's effort to provide a site for a state-funded stabilization unit for people in mental health crisis has been in its own crisis.

The county has slogged behind three other counties selected as pilot projects for the state's crisis stabilization units, which are intended to give communities safe, medically focused places to take mentally ill people, who have often historically ended up in county jails.

What’s the point?

It’s promising to see progress, after too many delays, on Washington County’s planned site for a state-funded mental health crisis stabilization unit.

County jails, if anyone has any doubts, are not good places for mental health services. Sure, jailers have been more or less forced into taking up some training to deal with their reality, but the approach has never been desirable. When someone is in a mental health event and law enforcement has to be called, it will be incredible that officers can take the person to a place for medical intervention, rather than to a jail. Everyone will be safer, and mental health will be treated for what it is -- a medical issue.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas General Assembly recognized this in 2017 when they created the pilot projects to open four units -- one each in Pulaski, Craighead, Sebastian and Washington counties. Meeting medical needs means these people may be able to avoid incarceration and migrate into real treatment.

Mental health advocates in those communities celebrated the news, which came after much lobbying for people who often cannot lobby for themselves.

Sebastian County was clearly prepared for the opportunity. It's been nearly a year since it opened the state's first crisis stabilization unit, and great stories of successes have emerged from the efforts.

The state's deal was this: If the counties can provide facilities for the units, the state would provide money to pay for annual operation. Counties would enter into agreements with local providers to meet the health care needs within the facilities.

Pulaski County opened its regional unit in July, a partnership with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Craighead County decided to build an entirely new building next to its jail. In January, the Quorum Court there approved $700,000 for the facility.

It wasn't until this past week that any money in Washington County was actually allocated toward its crisis stabilization unit, which has been delayed by fits and starts in the county administration's ideas about proper location and funding sources.

Washington County Judge Joseph Wood is on at least his third location choice. First, he wanted it in the fifth floor of the county-owned building at North Street and College Avenue in Fayetteville that houses UAMS-Northwest. That deal, which required a negotiated deal with UAMS, didn't work out.

Until recently, Wood's idea was to put the unit in a former office building, now county owned, that had been converted to hold a court and related facilities. At one time last year, the crisis stabilization unit was slated to open by Oct. 1 there. He moved Judge Joanna Taylor into the fifth floor of the Washington County Courthouse.

Now, Washington County has moved to option three. He's moved the county's Department of Emergency Management out of a former juvenile detention facility on Mill Street and into renovated space in the building where Taylor's court had been. The crisis stabilization unit's future is now, apparently, on Mill Street.

The delays have been unfortunate, and apparently dangerous in terms of funding. A few weeks back, news reports surfaced that the governor's office said Washington County's operational funding could be in jeopardy if the state didn't see concrete steps toward an opening.

No doubt some of the delay is Wood's expressed preference to pursue a $650,000 grant from the Endeavor Foundation in Springdale for the county's construction costs rather than dipping into county money. His office asked for the grant, but the private fundraising organization's board must review that idea and isn't expected to discuss it until March or April. Some reports indicate Wood was, for a while, also skittish about prospect that the state would continue its operational funding past the current fiscal year, leading to a bit of a slow play. He's reportedly received some assurances the money will be there in future years.

County money paid for the facilities in Sebastian and Pulaski counties.

The best news about this project, at least since the state announced Washington County's selection, came last week when the Washington County Quorum Court's Finance and Budget Committee backed authorizing $250,000 to get the former juvenile detention center ready to serve as the stabilization unit. It's got to go to the full Quorum Court for final approval, but since the committee consists of all the members on the Quorum Court, it seems reasonable to expect a thumbs up.

Its unfortunate Washington County's residents and law enforcement agencies have had to wait while county leadership has gone through its fiscal and physical dance, one that none of the other counties selected have had such struggles with.

When Asa Hutchinson helped open Sebastian County's new stabilization unit, he said it was about more than just cutting a ribbon.

"In a sense, we were cutting the ribbon on a promise to our state. We are cutting the ribbon on a new approach to law enforcement and the treatment of those in mental-health crisis," Hutchinson said. "This is the grand opening of a second chance and a new life for the many people who will benefit from the care they will receive."

Once the Fayetteville location manages to open, it will be worthy of celebration when the people of Washington and surrounding counties receive the benefits from such second chances and a more humane system for people facing mental illness.

Commentary on 02/16/2019

Print Headline: Crisis averted?

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