HVCLC Progress on Mental Health Services at Washtenaw County Commission

     At our September 1st Delegates’ meeting, we heard reports about substantial cuts to mental health services, and job losses for members of two of the HVCLC’s AFSCME affiliates, to be passed the next night in Washtenaw County’s 2016 mental health services budget.  The cuts were the County Administration’s response to the sudden appearance of a $4.7 million deficit in that budget.   We vowed that evening to find out why this deficit had appeared, apparently without warning, to do what we could to reduce the damage in 2016, and to make sure that this did not happen again.   How were we going to do those things?  We didn’t know and we had about 24 hours to develop the first elements of a plan.

      The next meeting of the County Commission was Wednesday, September 2nd.   At that meeting, Commissioners who shared our concerns and wanted more time to investigate options, stopped the proposed budget from passing.  We now had a window of two weeks to work with concerned citizens, the County Administration, and our Commissioners, to develop and build a consensus around a realistic alternative response.

     As a first step, we had to formulate our own goals and strategies as leaders of our local labor movement.  A number of HVCLC officers and delegates met on Saturday, Sept 12th, to come up with three basic goals:

  • Preserve and maintain the best possible mental health services for Washtenaw County;
  • Protect the jobs and standards of living of all current Washtenaw County mental health employees; and
  • Realize the first two goals in ways that would honor the current labor contracts of AFSCME and Washtenaw County.

     The same meeting also came up with three concrete proposals to advance those goals:

  1. Reduce the scale of service cuts and job losses by finding $1.7 million to keep them going for at least half a year, during which a community planning process (see proposal 3, below) would develop longer range, sustainable responses;
  2. Ensure that the County’s Living Wage Ordinance (LWO) was not gutted by granting a permanent, blanket exemption to all of the approximately 110 mental health service providers contracting with the County – part of the budget proposal voted down on Wednesday; and
  3. Create a community planning process in which the County Administration and community organizations, including organized labor, would work together to develop strategies for addressing the fiscal challenges caused by institutional restructuring and cuts in mental health service funding from the Republican government in Lansing.

     On Thursday, Sept 10th, we met with the County’s Administration leadership team to learn about the underlying causes of the budget deficit, present our proposals, and get their feedback on them.  It was a very cordial meeting at which it became clear that serious efforts were already underway to mitigate the impact of cost cuts on County employees.  This effort, urged on by the Commissioners, with Felicia Brabec taking point, convinced us that there was potential for collaboration with the Administration and CSTS going forward.  County Administrator Verna McDaniel indicated qualified support for our community process proposal.  It was not entirely clear, at the end of our meeting, where things stood on our LWO proposal, but the Administration explained that if they did not have a blanket waiver of the LWO ordinance for FY2016, it was going to cause serious problems with other entities that also had to approve this budget, particularly the four-county PIHP (created by Lansing two years ago) to which CSTS (our county’s mental health service delivery branch) must now report.   We took that concern seriously, and later modified our proposal on that point.  Overall, we judged it to be a very good start to what we hope and expect to be a fruitful collaboration over the next six months and beyond.  

     We now had less than a week before the next Commission meeting.   We refined our proposals in light of what we’d learned in our meeting with Verna and her team, and began talking about our revised proposals in detail with County Commissioners.   

     By the time the Commission met again on Sept 16th, a majority of our Commissioners supported all three of our proposals.  That night, the Commission:

  • Approved a FY2016 budget that pulled together an additional $1.7 million to mitigate and delay immediate cuts to mental health services and jobs;
  • Agreed to grant a one-year blanket exemption to the County’s LWO to the approximately 110 organizations that will provide mental health services to the County in FY2016
    • These orgs will not be permanently exempted from the LWO, as originally proposed. Instead, they will have one year to make a case for any further extension, with the maximum exemption being three years as in the current LWO.
    • Only those orgs that apply and are approved will get any further exemption, and to get it, they will have to develop a plan to come into compliance by the end of Year 3 – the same process specified in the current LWO for securing an exemption.  
    • We will have access to the budget information necessary to independently access whether we think they have a good case for extended exemption.
  • Committed to a community planning process that will give the county’s two AFSCME unions and the HVCLC seats at the table, along with other community stakeholders, as we consider how to respond to the structural problems that the FY2016 budget cuts do not solve.   
  • As part of this process, the County will (to quote Commissioner Yousef Rahbi’s amendment language) “retain an independent 3rd party contractor to review the finances, revenues and expenditures of CMH and that this contractor will develop a list of actionable recommendations to help Washtenaw County stabilize the future of the county CMH.”  
  • The HVCLC has put forward Steve Fitton — a former Director of Michigan’s Medicaid program who played a key role in the approval and implementation of Healthy Michigan, the state’s expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare – as a person to interview for this role.  After some research, we believe that he has what it takes to meet this challenge.  He is not guaranteed the job, but we expect that he will be interviewed and we will be present at that interview.

     We have come a long way from the situation we faced at our Sept 1st Delegates meeting! We could not have made such rapid, substantial progress without the hard work of Nancy Heine, Cheryl Jones, Deb Schmitt, Wes Prater, Bob King, Tad Wysor, Ron Mottsinger and the other HVCLC delegates who came to one or both of the last two Wednesday Commission meetings.

      Also critical was the hard work and creative thinking of three Commissioners: Yousef Rabhi, Andy LaBarre, and Conan Smith.  Ronnie Peterson also backed our proposals throughout.  These Commissioners helped to convince all but one of the other Commissioners present that night to vote in support of each of these proposals.

      Also critical to these victories were the community organizations that mobilized members and consumers of mental health services to demonstrate to the Commissioners the strong public support that existed for developing a better way forward. Greg Pratt deserves particular credit on that front.
     Finally, Verna McDaniel and other Administration decision-makers such as Trish and Felicia (who is both a Commissioner and the Interim Director of CSTS), were genuinely open to the creation of a more inclusive and collaborative process. They were open to it because they are deeply committed to maintaining high quality mental health services to Washtenaw County residents. They had to be persuaded that the participation of the unions representing their employees — as well as the HVCLC and other community stakeholders — would help, rather than hinder, their efforts to realize that goal.  I think we achieved that.
     A lot of people worked very hard for two weeks straight to bring about these results and congratulations are due all around! There is much more work to be done, but we’ve just taken a major step forward in just two weeks.  In the process, we’ve also shown other organizations who have watched what happened here that our labor movement is getting better at working together in Washtenaw County.  And we’re using the power that comes from working together in constructive ways, to defend what is worth defending and initiate new processes where innovation is required.
     We’re making it clear that we have to be included in decisions that affect the lives of working people in our county.  There is a Detroit group whose slogan is “Nothing about us without us.”  That should be the labor movement’s philosophy too, along with “an injury to one is an injury to all.”  Solidarity!