Dane County leaders disagree on how to fund rural mental health response

Dane County leaders disagree on how to fund rural mental health response

MADISON, Wis. – The need for an adequate mental health response in rural areas is growing at a staggering rate. Dane County officials say last year the sheriff’s office responded to 1,400 calls with a mental health component, but those officials differ on how to build a response system.

“We have a solution to a real challenge that exists right now,” County Executive Joe Parisi said.

In his budget for next year, Parisi proposed $250,000 for civilian mental health professionals in each precinct in Dane County and $190,000 for their own unmarked vehicles for a total of $440,000.

RELATED: Dane County Executive Parisi Reveals $834M Budget for 2023

“And so when a call comes in to 911, law enforcement will likely respond to it. If deemed appropriate, we would be able to send a civilian mental health care provider in a civilian vehicle,” Parisi said.

But his solution failed to garner support from the health and human services committee Tuesday night, prompting backlash from Parisi and Sheriff Kalvin Barrett in a memo to the finance committee, which said in part:

“The budget initiative that was removed is detrimental to the county’s behavioral health care goals and our shared desire to reduce law enforcement contact with those in crisis. The cut funding was to double Journey Mental Health’s available staff resources for rural behavioral health care services.

Committee Chair Heidi Wegleitner told News 3 Now on Wednesday that “the money the Parisi County Executive proposed in the budget was for the law enforcement crisis response.”

According to Sheriff Kalvin Barrett, the proposal would add to the three existing crisis workers employed by the sheriff’s office.

“Right now, we are currently sending a deputy with these part-time mental or embedded crisis workers on calls,” the sheriff said, “Aad once the scene is stabilized, the deputy steps back and the worker from built-in crisis takes over.”

For Wegleitner, “It’s not about taking money. It’s about building a model where we don’t have people with guns and uniforms showing up to a behavioral health crisis – we have paramedics and mental health workers treating people like patients instead of suspected criminals.

The Health and Human Needs Committee amended the budget, reallocating the $250,000 to the City of Madison’s CARES Crisis Response Team, “and facilitating the development of a mobile response effort in the event of a crisis without countywide law enforcement,” the decision read.

“It could mean partnering with other municipalities, it could mean the county sharing more of the costs for mental health workers and the city of Madison taking on more of the paramedic costs,” Wegleitner said.

RELATED: Suicide rate on the rise: Rural men ages 25-64 are among Wisconsin’s most vulnerable

“I think the decision that was made last night really did a lot of rural areas in Dane County a disservice,” Barrett said. “The city of Primrose has completely different needs from the city of Dunkirk, the city of Dunkirk has completely different needs from Black Earth, or Mazomania, or the city of Albion, and we need to be able to understand exactly what those needs are and start building and expanding our programs, which is what we are trying to do right now.

According to Barrett, 80% of the calls his deputies answer are mental health calls.

He and Parisi think time is running out.

“Let’s look [expanding CARES]”, Parisi said. “But you know, this is a study that’s going to take a year or two, three years to implement, so in the meantime, don’t deprive people outside of Madison of essential mental health services because where you live should not determine your access to emergency mental health services.

Barrett said that with time and attention, the countywide team could grow to reflect CARES for all parts of Dane County.

“And it’s up to us to have a trained mental health professional respond to those calls instead of law enforcement,” he said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues or considering suicide, resources are available to help you. Calling 988 nationwide will put you in touch with the Suicide and lifeline in case of crisis. In Dane County, Journey Mental Health Center has a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline at 608-280-2600.

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