New marijuana tax money can’t meet all of Eagle County’s mental health needs
EAGLE COUNTY — The documented need for mental health services in Eagle County prompted voters to approve a tax on marijuana sales in a special election in November.
But the proceeds of the tax won’t be enough to meet the overreaching need, and the dollars won’t materialize until roughly the end of 2018.
Those were the sobering realities on the table for a discussion this week among Eagle County officials, representatives from Eagle County Schools and a group of mental health professionals.
“We can all agree there are more needs that we can ever hope to address,” Eagle County Public Health Director Chris Lindley said. “The challenge is the sustainability of this.”
Services needed now
Billed as a “fiscal discussion” regarding mental health services, Lindley noted Eagle County has no general fund money budgeted for mental health efforts in 2018. Proceeds from the marijuana sales tax won’t start coming in until spring, and it will be the end of the year before county officials know how much the new tax will generate. Optimistic estimates show it will generate more than $1 million annually. More conservative figures show it will bring in around $500,000 each year.
In the meantime, the need for services continues to climb. Lindley said Eagle County saw a record number of suicides in 2017, placing the county among the highest suicide rates in the state.
Confronted by the double punch of limited resources and burgeoning need, Lindley noted that the tax campaign highlighted three areas of critical need — school-based counselors, jail-based counselors and crisis-stabilization beds.
School based counselors
In November, the county conduced a survey of Eagle County Schools counselors to determine local students’ needs. Lindsey said the survey results show that current counselors are overwhelmed and worried about students’ mental health. The single largest need identified by the school group was “counselors with community mental health education.”
“It really comes down to one thing — boots on the ground,” Lindley said.
The district recently received a three-year grant to helps assess student mental health needs, and the first focus of that effort is to set up a system to deal with referrals so a process exists to assist kids. But even when the referral system is developed, the district lacks the personnel to work with the kids who need help. Lindsey noted the county wants to partner with the schools and Mind Springs Health, the current mental health services provider in the valley, to address the school need.
An optimistic timeline for that effort features a funding plan developed this spring and new counselors hired before the end of the current school year. Additionally a comprehensive parent/community training plan would be launched by May.
Eagle County Jail
The inmates at the Eagle County jail are another underserved population in desperate need of additional mental health services.
Lindley noted the jail is experiencing an increase in mentally ill detainees and the jail’s current health services don’t provide care and counseling that promote long-term success once inmates are released.
“A lot of the time, without the care, they end up right back in the system,” Lindley said.
Jail officials are also concerned about medical intervention.
“We lack resources and we have basically approached all the situations with medication,” Eagle County Detentions Captain Gregory Van Wyk said. ”It’s important that we change our game plan with the changing times. We can’t medicate inmates to safety.”
Sheriff James Van Beek said the jail operation wants to connect inmates with appropriate community resources.
“We have a problem. We recognize it. We are just trying to get our hands around it,” he said.
Like the schools, the jail issue comes down to personnel. At a minimum, the sheriff’s office believes there is an immediate need for a full-time mental health employee to oversee jail programming and a part-time caseworker to oversee administrative needs and track post-release data.
Mind Springs partners
As they look to expand local mental health services, county officials have reached out to Mind Springs Health. The local provider is willing to partner on the efforts, but notes that it will have to increase staff to provide these services. And that’s where the discussion turns back to funding.
As Lindley said, the marijuana tax money alone won’t be enough to fund the school and jail programs, and that doesn’t even take into account the critical-care bed needs identified as part of the ballot issue campaign. He said the county is looking for partners, grants and donations to address the issue.
“No mater what, we are not going to be able to do everything we want to do,” he said. “We just want the Commissioners to understand the cost of these things and the need for these things.”
Ultimately, the people working the front lines where the local mental health needs present themselves said that not having enough funding to do everything isn’t a reason to do nothing. The challenge, they said, is to define and launch a sustainable effort that starts helping people as soon as possible.
“I am not looking for a Band-Aid. I am looking for a long-term cure,” Van Beek said.
“Anything we can do to further the community conversation is good,” Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler Henry said.