Letter to the Editor

Answering the mental health services crisis

Monday, April 18, 2016

Anyone reading this can likely cite tragic examples that have proven to be societal challenges due to the inadequate and ineffective mental health services throughout Iowa. In the last several years, shootings in the United States have tended to have at least one of two common themes: access to guns, and individuals, usually men, who have untreated mental health issues.

We commend the Iowa General Assembly for its efforts to address the patchwork of mental health services offered for the past 100 years, starting in 2013 with a complete redesign of the mental health system. However, it is now tie to complete that work by providing our counties and mental health/disability services regions with sustained and permanent funding. This is the only way the State of Iowa can meet the underlying goal of the redesign process: to provide access to an expanded level of quality services to all Iowans at an affordable and consistent cost throughout each region.

There is currently proposed legislation in the Iowa Senate which, if passed and signed into law by Governor Branstad, will complete this critical funding piece. It is the best of all political worlds: lowers property taxes statewide, allows for local flexibility to repsond to mental health needs and maintains controls to protect taxpayers.

Senate File 2318 needs to be passed and signed by Governor Branstad to prevent disintegration of the successful regional approach to mental health services implemented in 2013.

Historically, Iowa has relied on each county to fund and provide mental health services. The funding was primarily property tax. The funding for that system changed in 1996, when the property taxes were capped at about $50 million and the State and Counties shared increased funding going forward.

SF 2318 eliminates the 1996 property tax cap and allows the regions -- which work with each county board of supervisors -- to provide sustained funding that is needed to respond to the mental health needs of each area in Iowa. SF 2318 is supposed by all the county boards of superviosrs and nearly all elected county supervisors, as well as regional mental health officials and will ensure that every county pays their fair share for mental health services.

It is important to point out that Iowa taxpayers are still protected as the regions expand to meet mental health needs. Counties and mental health regions must still have the State approve their services plans, the resulting budgets and any changes to those budgets before they can be implemented. Regions cannot maintain more than a 25 percent fund balance.

Currently, because of the dollar cap freeze, Iowa has small, rural counties subsidizing the most prosperous and growing counties, primarily Johnson, Scott and Polk Counties. SF 2318 is supported by the county and regional officials.

With the implementation of SF 2318, property taxes for mental health for 73 small, rural counties could drop, and another 15 would probably see no change in their tax structure. Current projections for fiscal year 2017 show only up to 11 counties could see an increase. But the savings statewide in property tax from this bill would be $7.5 million.

As the General Assembly moves toward adjournment, it must resist the urge to let this issue go one more year. The state mental health system needs to have long-term funding to move towards adequate services for its citizens. Passage of SF 2318 is the right thing to do for the state of Iowa, the right thing to do in support of the State's on-going efforts to address the needs related to mental health, and more importantly, it is the right thing to do for the citizens of Iowa.