The strained relationship between Benton and Franklin county commissioners appeared to be on the mend earlier this year, but the tone during last week’s Benton County Commission meeting showed they still struggle to get along.
This return to dysfunction is disturbing.
When both groups meet June 30 to discuss the future of crisis response services in the community, they need to reach an agreement.
Continued delay is unacceptable. We see examples daily in both counties of people in desperate need of emergency mental health services, and this impasse threatens the stability of this critical community service.
The two counties provide mental health services through the bicounty human services division. Starting in 2020, behavioral health services will fall to private managed care organizations, potentially putting the network of existing service providers out of business.
With the new state requirements on the horizon, the two commissions agreed in March to hire Rick Weaver, CEO of Comprehensive, to help with the transition.
But Franklin County commissioners apparently are second-guessing that decision, and have yet to formally approve the contract.
They said they are concerned that hiring Weaver would create a conflict of interest if Comprehensive wanted to bid for work later.
The organization already manages programs in Yakima and Walla Walla, and Franklin County does not want to make it impossible for Comprehensive to operate in the Tri-Cities as well.
While it never hurts to consider all possible ramifications of a decision, it is puzzling — and frustrating — that this concern has not been discussed until now.
It has been several months since the two commissions decided to hire Weaver. Surely, there has been enough time for Franklin County commissioners to find out for sure whether their fears are founded or not.
In the meantime, the standstill reportedly has put a strain on staff at the crisis unit. The nature of the work itself is stressful; employees don’t need an uncertain future at work to compound their pressure.
The bicounty unit provides initial intervention when someone is having a mental crisis. After the crisis is over, clients are frequently referred to other providers for long-term treatment and care.
And while our crisis workers do the best they can, the mental health system in our state is woefully inadequate. At a local level, we can’t afford to diminish what services we have remaining.
Benton County Commission Chairman Shon Small said the crisis unit is not at a breaking point yet, but the team is losing people to other agencies and he is concerned what will happen to the program if staffing losses continue.
Vulnerable people with mental health issues end up in crisis all over the Tri-Cities, and a combined approach is the best way to provide care and supervision throughout the region.
That’s why it is imperative the two commissions work together on this issue. The two groups have had a difficult time cooperating in the past, but they were making such good progress earlier this year that we thought the tension had lessened.
It is exasperating to see the animosity surface again.
This foot-dragging threatens what few safety nets we have left for those in mental health crisis. Franklin County commissioners should not be waffling on a decision they made months ago.