Editorial

Any cuts to what feels like an already under-funded state mental health system would be too much and the costs would be handed down to taxpayers on the local level.

A state House subcommittee removed many of those suggested cuts this week — thank you to our local Rep. Katie Dempsey who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees human services spending. They were on the ball and worked to keep all of the proposed cuts we were worried about from happening.

It’s fair to note that Gov. Brian Kemp is looking at sluggish tax numbers and is planning for the future, but while our fiscal future is important it isn’t the only thing we need to plan for. However, it’s also fair to note that some of those lower tax numbers came about because of a legislator-approved cut in the state’s income tax rate — decreasing revenue by more than $500 million.

When the state chose to close Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in 2011, it may have saved the state some money — but it dropped the costs on our local agencies.

With nowhere to offer people in need of mental health services, many ended up in the jail and we’re footing that bill too.

For instance, we can see evidence of Phase I of a SPLOST-funded jail expansion, a new training center. The next phase is a medical pod with a mental health wing. This mental health wing is a direct result of the state closing a regional mental health facility.

That project, costing local voters an estimated $7.4 million, is funded through two special purpose, local option sales tax packages.

Of that, a stopgap $2.2 million in the 2013 SPLOST expanded an existing medical clinic and included a padded cell for inmates in crisis as well as one with a separate ventilation system to house inmates with contagious diseases.

In 2017, voters approved another $5.2 million for a complete makeover of one of the pods at the jail, for a total of 60 beds.

That’s the money cost. That’s not the additional costs of training deputies at the jail to deal with incarcerated people with severe mental health issues or depression or suicidal thoughts. That’s not the costs associated with turnover rates in law enforcement and finding qualified staff to fill open positions.

Gov. Kemp originally proposed approximately $557 million in cuts across the spectrum of state services. Of that, state mental health services faced around $80 million in cuts. Primarily the cuts hit programs meant to prevent crisis situations — the ones most likely to end up with a person in jail or a psychiatric ward.

On top of that, other suggested cuts seemed to focus on programs that support some of our most vulnerable populations. Proposed cuts could affect criminal justice reform programs including accountability courts, the state public defender system or the state crime lab, which processes forensic lab tests for rape investigations.

Does anybody remember the massive statewide rape kit backlog? We do, and that’s not a position we need to be in again.

We need to remember many of these services aren’t just for what we might classify as mental health issues — they also affect substance abuse services as well as anxiety, depression or other issues.

Nearly all of these programs — including mental health — took severe hits during the Great Recession and have only recovered to a degree from those cuts.

It’s worrisome that in a state which is rated at near the bottom of the list across the nation for mental health care, that we would even consider cuts.

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