County Boss Soul Searches on Mental Health Center

from the Portland Mercury, January 24, 2008

County Boss Soul Searches on Mental Health Center

County Chair Ted Wheeler met with 60 mental health advocates last week to confess his disappointment over the county’s ongoing failure to reopen Portland’s sub-acute facility for people in mental health crisis.

Since the closure of the crisis triage center in 2003, cops have had no option but to transport people in such crises to jail or, if they’ve hurt themselves, to an emergency room.

Reopening a sub-acute facility was the number-one recommendation of Mayor Tom Potter’s Mental Health/Public Safety initiative formed in the fall of 2006, following the death in police custody of James Philip Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old schizophrenic, in September of that year.

Since then, Potter has funded crisis intervention training for all the city’s police officers to the tune of $500,000, and Police Chief Rosie Sizer has overhauled the cops’ use-of-force policies to hold officers more accountable over allegations of excessive force. Meanwhile Wheeler, who took over from Diane Linn as county chair in early 2007, hasn’t held up the county’s end of the public safety bargain.

Chasse’s parents sat intently in row six of a 60-strong audience last Friday evening, January 18, at the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on NW 19th. Wheeler, half-protected by a modest wooden lectern, faced the crowd, which included three county court judges, the head of the state’s psychiatric review board, and the heads of two local mental health treatment centers.

He began by justifying his decision last October to vote against a proposal to fund the sub-acute facility by diverting $4 million of county subsidies from Gresham, County Commissioner Lisa Naito’s idea [“Less Than a Crisis?” News, Nov 1]. Wheeler said the Gresham money is used to fund essential police services there, and that he did not believe in solving one crisis by creating another.

He also announced plans for an experimental, county-funded Mental Health Court, beginning some time in late spring. The court, which was explained to the group by Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Julie Frantz, will aim to offer a choice of treatment to those with psychiatric needs who are caught up in the criminal justice system.

In the first year, the Mental Health Court aims to divert up to 100 people into treatment, according to the county’s director of mental health and addiction services, Karl Brimner. Brimner insisted the treatment services for those people are funded and ready to go, although he faced doubt from the audience about the on-ground availability of those services.

Then the tough questions started. Wheeler was asked how satisfied he is with the state of mental health services in Multnomah County, right now. He responded by mentioning the county’s new crisis hotline—a 24-hour phone service for people to call a mental health responder if they’re worried about someone in crisis. But he confessed to frustration with the state legislature’s refusal last spring to fund the ongoing cost of running the sub-acute center to the tune of $3 million a year—despite his promise to build it with $2 million of one-time county money.

Wheeler was asked when the sub-acute center would be open.

“I think it would be irresponsible to state a date,” he said.

He was asked whether he would have failed as county commissioner if the center does not open by the time he’s up for reelection in 2010.

“No, I don’t think I’ll have failed as county chair,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of talking about the importance of this center, but it’s not just about me. If we’re still talking in three years about how we’re going to fund the biggest gap in mental health, that’s not just a gap for me, it’s a failure for the entire community. There’s going to be a lot of disappointment to go around.”

While continuing to lobby Salem for the money to run the center—alongside mental health advocates and representatives from Washington and Clackamas Counties—Wheeler is also considering putting a public safety levy on Portlanders’ election ballots this November.

Such a tax would require three votes from Wheeler’s board of county commissioners and a public hearings process. Voters approved similar levies for schools and libraries last May, but his office will delay a decision on the new tax until late spring.

“Multnomah County voters have shown a willingness to support well-planned ideas,” says Wheeler’s communications director, Rhys Scholes. “I think that a lot of people understand the depth of this problem.”

In the meantime, there’s still no sub-acute center, but advocates are hopeful.

“Wheeler is ambitious, optimistic, dynamic, and has a strong personality,” said Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, after the meeting. “The question is, can he get enough people on the bus with him to Salem to make the difference?”