In August 2018, Washington County officials said a new crisis stabilization unit — an alternative to jail for people suffering from mental illness — would be open by that October, as soon as the county renovated a 5,000 square foot space in the Judicial Annex Building to make way for the planned 16-bed facility.
Months later, the Northwest Arkansas Crisis Stabilization Unit remains unbuilt, and the county may be abandoning its plans to remodel the annex. It may instead house the CSU in a nearby building occupied by Washington County Emergency Management, County Judge Joseph Wood said in a phone interview on Thursday.
Wood said the location would be less costly to renovate than the annex, though the new building plans must be approved by the state Department of Human Services, causing a further delay in the opening date. “My target would be June of this year,” Wood said.
But the state, which partners with counties to pay for the CSUs, may be losing patience with Washington County. A spokesman for Governor Hutchinson, J.R. Davis, wrote in an email Thursday that the county could be in jeopardy of losing its state funding “if there are no concrete steps towards opening a unit.” Hutchinson has championed the CSUs as a critical part of improving Arkansas’s criminal justice and mental health systems.
Wood cited a lack of startup funds as the cause of the delay. The county is now asking the Endeavor Foundation, a private grantmaker based in Springdale, to fund the cost of renovations. The foundation is eager to help, Wood said, “because they have a heart for mental illness and the work we’re trying to do.” The foundation’s board is expected to meet to discuss the proposal in March or April, Wood said.
Eva Madison, the District 9 Justice of the Peace for Washington County, questioned why the county was approaching a private entity rather than asking the quorum court, which is responsible for the county budget.
“I think it's highly unusual that we are asking a private, nonprofit foundation to fund a government service,” she said. “And yet we’ve allowed them to dictate our timeline. I mean, the CSU should be open. It should be helping people. It should have been helping people for several months.”
Washington County is one of four locations selected by the state to operate a CSU. Facilities in Pulaski and Sebastian counties are up and running, while Craighead County has also encountered delays and has not yet started construction. However, the Craighead County quorum court recently approved $700,000 to construct its unit in Jonesboro, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported last week.
Under Act 423 of 2017, the legislation that created the CSUs, Davis wrote, “the counties are responsible for all startup costs for funding the brick-and-mortar locations or renovations to existing facilities. … Three of the four counties went to their quorum court for the money.”
Madison said Wood has never asked the Washington County quorum court to pay for the Northwest Arkansas CSU. “Never. Not at all. We’ve been given rough numbers, [but] we’ve never been presented the opportunity to fund it,” she said. (In November, Madison sued Wood over a Freedom of Information Act request unrelated to the CSU.)
Asked why he had not approached the quorum court for startup money, Wood said he had been worried about the state’s commitment to continuing its share of funding. He and his counterparts from the other three counties recently met with the governor to discuss future funding for the CSUs, he said, after hearing word that the state might drop the program after the current fiscal year.
Hutchinson “reassured us that the grant money would be there and that the CSUs would be funded through 2021… . We all walked away feeling better that we would have the funding,” Wood said.
Davis confirmed that the meeting took place and that all four CSUs, including Washington County, have been approved for funding through 2021. When asked whether all four had been in danger of losing state funding, he responded, “no. However, future state funding is dependent upon the success of each individual CSU.”
In 2017, the Arkansas legislature approved $5 million to operate the four CSUs, and the governor provided an additional $1.4 million from his rainy day fund. Former state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), a sponsor of the legislation that authorized the facilities, said people experiencing mental health crises often end up in jail for minor public disturbances. That overloads jails, consumes local resources and harms people with mental illness, Tucker said.
The CSUs, each of which is operated by a mental health provider that contracts with its host county, provide law enforcement officers with an alternative option. The legislation also provides for training for officers. Each CSU is intended to serve multiple counties in a catchment area.
“No. 1, we are really reducing crime; No. 2, we are taking better care of our citizens with mental health needs; and No. 3, we’re actually reducing the taxpayer burden at the same time,” Tucker said.
Tucker said the legislation made it clear that counties are responsible for providing the facility, while the state’s funding is intended for operations. “The county essentially functions as the landlord, and they hire a provider to run the operation, and the state pays for a substantial portion of the operation,” he said.
Wood, however, said he believes the state should provide money for construction as well. In his meeting with the governor, he recommended that the state do so if CSUs are designated for additional counties in the future.
“The state-funded money for operations. They didn’t provide money to build. … It’s not like everybody has these in their counties just waiting to open,” he said.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.