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Grand Traverse County board moves to dissolve agreement with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health

The Record-Eagle - 5/4/2022

May 5—TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County will part ways with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority and form its own agency, a move commissioners say will better serve the community.

The county board voted 6 to 1 Wednesday to give its notice of intent to dissolve an enabling agreement with Northern Lakes. The notice will be sent to the appropriate local and state agencies and the other counties in the six-county CMH. The county will maintain and expand mental health services through alternate means.

According to that agreement, when any county terminates the agreement, the entire authority will be dissolved on the effective date of termination, leaving the five other counties without services.

Penny Morris, who is the county board liaison to the CMH board, sees the move to separate as an opportunity to provide better services to the community.

"We are in a dysfunctional relationship with our mental health authority," Morris said. "In that relationship we need to decide if we need a divorce attorney or a marriage counselor."

Morris said she has spoken to fellow CMH board members about the needs of Grand Traverse County to no avail.

"We can't live in a relationship where our community needs are ignored," Morris said. "I think the cost is much greater if we do nothing."

The first step in the process is sending a letter of intent to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Once the state agency acknowledges it received the letter, the county will have one year to form its own mental health authority.

During that year Northern Lakes will continue to deliver services, with county Administrator Nate Alger assuring the board there will not be a gap in services at the time of transition.

"I was concerned to hear about the GTC decision to remove itself from the the enabling agreement," said Joanie Blamer, Northern Lakes interim CEO. "Certainly we would have been at the meeting if we had known the enabling agreement was going to be discussed."

Blamer said services to incarcerated people appear to be a driving factor in the GTC board's decision. When a person on Medicaid becomes incarcerated, their health insurance is stopped, which restricts services by Northern Lakes.

She said the agency is working hard to "turn the ship," but dissolution of the enabling agreement would be a huge step backward. She said they've secured federal appropriations for increased services and she's not sure what would happen to those funds.

Blamer said she hopes Northern Lakes and GTC can repair its relationship.

Leelanau Commissioner Ty Wessell, who also sits on the CMH board, said the move was not a surprise, that Leelanau Administrator Chet Janik has talked to Alger and county board Chair Rob Hentschel about partnering to form an authority.

Wessell on Wednesday asked Janik to set up a meeting with GTC to discuss it, saying he's hopeful they can move forward while ensuring that services are not disrupted.

Kate Dahlstrom, an advocate for better mental health services, said she spoke to several fellow advocates after Wednesday's meeting.

"It feels like a huge, heavy weight has been lifted off our shoulders," Dahlstrom said. "Many of us who've been advocating for better services, we're ready to sit down and plan for those."

Several community members and every commissioner spoke out against Northern Lakes on Wednesday.

"It's an agency that no longer serves our county," said John DeSpelder, of Peninsula Township. DeSpelder said he supports leaving Northern Lakes and forming an agency with one or two counties.

Tom Bousamra, co-founder of Before, During & After Incarceration, said a smaller agency would be more responsive and would have more flexibility.

Grand Traverse County, which has the highest population of Northern Lake's six counties, contributed about $682,200 to the agency for FY 2019-2020, according to its annual report. Crawford, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford counties are a part of the agency and together contributed a total of $300,268. The 16-member board of directors is made up of six representatives from GTC and two each from the other counties.

At its April 20 meeting the county board voted to recommend that the CMH board address claims that Blamer, who was then the agency's interim CEO, had asked to meet with health board members on a one-to-one basis to talk to them about her priorities for CMH, which is a violation of its governance policy.

Commissioners wanted the CMH board to look at Blamer's actions before offering her the job of CEO. The board ignored the request, said board Chairman Rob Hentschel and on April 21 they voted 9-7 to give her the job.

Commissioner Bryce Hundley voted against the measure to leave the agency, saying the motion was not in the county packet and he was very surprised by it, though he said he agreed changes need to be made.

"I feel like we need to start the discussion about this as a possibility, but not this particular motion to start the 365-day clock," Hundley said.

The county will hire an attorney to compose the letter, which will come back to the board for approval before it is sent out. Alger said a law firm with expertise in the area has been recommended.

Commissioner Darryl V. Nelson, who made the motion, said the administration can't move forward without direction from the board.

"I want to remind everybody that people are dying, families are being destroyed and our community is suffering," Nelson said, adding that Northern Lakes has been put on notice and the action should not be a surprise to anyone.

A separate motion approved unanimously instructs Alger to seek public input to create a baseline of mental health services, as well as to hire a consultant to lead the county through the process of forming its own mental health agency.

Other counties have done this, namely Washtenaw County, which "overwhelmingly" passed a millage and created a diversion center and a mobile crisis unit, said Undersheriff Mike Shea. The Washtenaw sheriff and a clinician have been invited to share their experience at a GTC board meeting.

"Basically (they have) everything that we have been dreaming about," Shea told commissioners. "I had the opportunity to go down to tour that and it was phenomenal."

Law enforcement agencies have a stake in mental health services as Department of Justice reports find nearly 40 percent of all inmates have mental health or substance abuse issues. Officers now receive training on how to de-escalate situations with people with those issues.

Several commissioners were concerned with the change being a heavy lift for Alger, but he assured them he is capable of taking it on.

"This is not just a jail services problem," Alger said. "I have significant experience with CMH. Through that process they have failed us for decades, in my opinion. This is a bigger problem ... It's a refusal on CMH's leadership's part to even acknowledge that Grand Traverse County is saying, 'We have a concern about our service level,' and they refuse to engage us in appropriate discussion to fix the problems."

In other actions the board reappointed Mary Marois and appointed new member Tony Lentych to the CMH board. They were unanimously recommended by a county ad hoc committee made up of commissioners Brad Jewett, Betsy Coffia and Morris.

Lentych replaces Randy Kamps, who also interviewed to keep his spot. Lentych, executive director of the Traverse City Housing Commission, was appointed in part because of his ability to work with many of the same people and agencies Northern Lakes works with.

The ad hoc committee interviewed 11 candidates for the two posts.


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