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Merger is questioned

June signals the start of County Executive Marcus Molinaro’s preparations for next year’s county budget, which the Legislature will scrutinize in November before eventual adoption in December. In his January State of the County Address, the county executive announced plans to merge the county departments of Mental Hygiene (DMH) with the Health Department. This concept was again revisited in June with the resignation of Health Department Commissioner Michael Caldwell after 19 years to make way for the impending department merger. Such a measure, apparently intended to save costs, is a disservice to the one in four adults who struggle with mental illness in our society, will undermine other legitimate county functions and ultimately results in a higher criminal justice budget.

In 2009, amid the economic recession, county government not unlike New York state government, began a meticulous and targeted effort to divert tax monies away from services that assist in the care and treatment of the mentally ill. During the same years that the state was closing Hudson River Psychiatric Hospital, the county was on a path that in 2013 will have reduced the county workforce in the DMH by 107 employees from 201 full-time employees in 2009 to a projected staffing level of 88 in 2013. At the same time the average daily inmate population at the Dutchess County Jail has risen coincidentally also by 107, from 344 in 2009 to 451 (as of July 1) with jail personnel reporting that approximately 80 percent of the jail population has a history of mental illness and/or substance abuse.

The layoffs, realignments and succession planning at DMH is projected to result in 2013 savings of S1,276,406 as compared to 2008. However, a $1.2 million savings in a $412 million budget is marginal when compared to the fact that the housing-out cost at the county jail has grown during these same years by $6 million a year. Sadly, the county’s inability in previous years to address jail overcrowding via jail construction is causing the destruction of human services delivery.

The last few years have seen a shift in county-run mental health services away from direct treatment of the mentally ill toward crisis intervention, hospital diversion and privatization of services. While our local nonprofits have stepped up, such a dilution of DMH has had the effect of dismantling and crippling the impact and scope that DMH once had on this segment of the population that is so reliant on a community and social model. Instead the shepherding role DMH once had is now being met by the criminal justice system with more taxpayer dollars in a less therapeutic environment and with little emphasis on healing and recovery.

Criminal justice impacts aside, if the county merger is allowed to proceed the very concept of mental hygiene will be buried amid the all-encompassing euphemism “health.” Promoting sanity will be eclipsed by sanitation, and mental wellness will be out-shadowed by a wellness that emphasizes exercise and nutrition. It is a fallacy of equivocation to assume that since both departments share an allegiance to “health,” that their missions will be the same.

I am most fearful that the population now serviced by DMH will not find the individualized help they need in the health department. Instead, it will be left to the Department of Emergency Response that will answer the call for help. The result will be even more incarcerations of the mentally ill at greater taxpayer expense. Gone forever will be our county’s commitment to the treatment and care for county residents who struggle with a mental health diagnosis.

Kelsey represents the people of Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com. Read past columns at www.tricornernews.com.