The Douglas County Board of Commissioners voted not to go through with a plan to relocate the county’s mental health services to a new downtown facility. A resolution to begin the process was rejected on a 5-2 vote. A smaller version of the proposal may return before the County Board in the coming weeks.

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The county’s Community Mental Health Center is currently housed in the Douglas County Health Center at 42nd Street and Woolworth Avenue. The project would have relocated those services to a new building at 16th and Jackson streets and connected it with an expansion to the nearby county jail to provide mental health services to inmates. The project was estimated to cost upwards of $60 million, which would mostly be paid through pandemic relief funds.

Artist rendering of a proposed Douglas County mental health facility in downtown Omaha.

Commissioner P.J. Morgan said the county jail portion addresses an urgent need for the incarcerated population — about 20% of the jail’s population suffers from a severe mental illness and yet no part of the facility was designed for treatment. However, he said, the Community Mental Health Center plan wouldn’t make as big of an impact as it wouldn’t increase the number of beds for the general population. The mental health center currently has 16 inpatient beds. This project would have had space for 96 — 76 for the jail and 20 for the community mental health center.

Morgan initially made a motion to move forward with the jail expansion and hold off on the new Community Mental Health Center. He ultimately withdrew that motion so the County Board could vote on a new resolution in the coming weeks. He said taking more time on the new facility could allow them to find more funding opportunities from the state, private foundations, and nearby counties.

“We can always come back to what we’re doing at 16th and Jackson,” Morgan said. “But let’s look at those other options to be certain that we’re doing the best we can for the citizens of Omaha that need this service.”

Board Chair Mary Ann Borgeson voted in favor of the resolution along with Commissioner Chris Rodgers. Borgeson said she was disappointed that politics got in the way of addressing the mental health crisis.

“People have brought up over and over that mental health is a crisis, we’re in crisis,” Borgeson said. “But then when it’s time to put our bucks where the rubber meets the road, we run. We take a U-turn.”

The County Board planned on using $50 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and $8 million of leftover money from the CARES Act. The project was estimated to cost approximately $60 million, and any additional cost would be covered with general fund dollars.

Commissioner Roger Garcia said they should reconsider the facility in March 2024 to give the state legislature a chance to provide financial support. He said ARPA money doesn’t need to be spent until December 2026.

Former chairman of the Douglas County Board of Health Ed Fogarty said ARPA shouldn’t be used on capital improvement projects. He said the county attorney needs to have a back-and-forth with Deloitte — a financial consulting firm that assists the county with managing COVID-relief funds — to make sure that they stay compliant with ARPA guidelines.

Several testifiers raised concerns about increasing stigma around mental health treatment by placing it on a jail campus. Former state senator Ernie Chambers said “labels can kill,” and the proposal would conflate the concepts of mental illness and criminality.

“I don’t want to see anything done that would further entrench that notion to take those people who have been stigmatized and put them in a situation where the place they go for treatment is the place where you put criminals,” Chambers said.

The County Board also heard a presentation on the Sheriff’s office’s requested budget for the 2023/2024 fiscal year. Sheriff Aaron Hanson said the vast majority of the $22.3 million budget — more than $860,000 higher than the targeted amount — would go toward personnel costs.

Douglas County Court Administrator Ron Murtaugh presented his department’s budget request, which came in at $80,000 higher than the targeted amount. He said most of the increase would go toward increasing compensation for court-appointed attorneys.

The Omaha City Council also met for a brief meeting Tuesday, approving an agreement to provide yard waste disposition for the city of Bellevue.

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