Nevermind Unfunded Pensions and the Mentally Ill in Jail: Let’s Buy A Big New Courthouse!

by Mark Scaramella, November 11, 2009

Coast psychiatrist Dr. Mark Klein was back before the Board last week to present a follow-up to his previous informal request: a draft of a resolution “supporting treatment not incarceration for people with serious mental illness.”

The doctor's resolution was sprinkled with “whereases” stating what anyone with even a remote awareness of the situation already knows: Mendocino County maintains “an absence of treatment programs and facilities” and “a crowded county jail in which a significant number of inmates are suffering from serious mental illness.”

“Incarceration does not improve the condition of people with serious mental illness,” the whereases said. “The correctional system is not designed to treat mental illness.” … “What is needed is additional services from peers and professionals that will prevent, avert, or minimize crisis and create options to divert mentally ill persons from correctional involvement and increase their capacity for recovery.”

If crazy people were placed in hospitals where they belong, crime would be reduced and the jail population greatly diminished.

“Current services … are underfunded and diminishing.” Klein said that “mental health courts, assertive community treatment, supported housing for people with mental illness, housing-first initiatives, and supported vocational programs” would help and would reduce current costs for dealing with the mentally incompetent.

Having labored through an elephantine statement of the mental health problem, with the whereases rolling to an expectant conclusion, Doctor Klein's resolution gave birth to a resolute mouse: “We commit ourselves to ongoing monitoring of this issue and working toward creating treatment options and support services that will prevent unnecessary incarceration.”

The Supes unanimously approved Dr. Klein's high-minded resolution, but not until Supervisor Colfax ate up eight full minutes to say that there’s no money to house and treat the mentally ill.

Colfax: “As a, uh, undergraduate clinical psychology major a half century ago, um, I um, had an opportunity to spend time in mental hospitals and I decided at that time that what I saw in terms of the level of services I would be able to provide as a professional in that area were so pathetically inadequate that I decided I would go into a different field. Uh, this probably will not be appreciated, but I wonder what stage of grieving are we in? According to Kub- Kubla, uh, Ross paradigm, are we in denial? I think we really are. I think what I'm sitting up here listening to is a massive denial exhibition.”

After several more minutes of irrelevant personal history we don’t need to bore you with here that allegedly established Colfax’s bona fides on the subject of mental illness, the Supervisor excluding his own well-known departures from the tidy paths of mental health, Colfax continued: “And I think at the local level, one of the ways, one of the things we have to face up to, and it's not the, the professional, the health professionals, but it's rather for the people who are elected to office and those who support those who are elected to office to move in the direction of getting a designated item on the tax rolls in Mendocino County to promote mental health and get this particular un… inadequately funded aspect of our responsibilities sufficiently addressed no matter how much energy we put to it, no matter how much enthusiasm we put into it, no matter how we all come together through whatever means, we are not going to be able to do the job that needs to be done given the simple magnitude of the task, given the historic neglect going back 50 years — 50 years of neglect.”

Typical Mendo blather. Colfax knows his constituency: Express concern, hold yourself up as a fine person for standing up for people you'll do nothing to help, take no action. Get-re-elected.

The Mental Health Advisory board has suggested the re-establishment of “the mental health coordinator.” Exactly what this “coordinator” would do for the chronically mentally ill, the numerous addicts, schizophrenics, bipolars, neurotics, paranoids, and our legions of free-floating nuts the cops are constantly called out to deal with was unclear.

(I refer you to the County's own studies showing that Mendocino County has substantially more certifiable loons per capita than any other northern California county.)

Social Services honcho Susan Era described Klein's resolution as an “exciting first step,” and that “conversations will continue,” amd that “we need creative thinking, out of the box thinking, group counseling, and individual case management.”

Having exhausted her scant fund of helping cliches, Ms. Era added that she and her hard-hitting staff had identified “individuals in jail with mental illness who need assistance to transition out and get follow-up case management. We have served over 14 individuals so far,” Era concluded, as we wondered if she and her staff had “served” the guy who sculpts his poop. The cops don't have any idea what to do with The Pooper Scooper.

Remember the County’s unfunded pension obligation, made much worse by the recent stock market collapse? Meeting the County’s pension obligation as defined by the existing “funding agreement” between the County and the Retirement Association would require so much cash-money in such a short time that it would bankrupt our already near-bankrupt County in fewer years than the present rate of collapse.

Solution?

Eliminate the funding agreement and spread the payback obligation over three times as many years, reducing the yearly contribution requirement and avoiding short-term bankruptcy.

Done. Approved. Unanimous.

The only problem, as full-time independent pension watcher John Dickerson pointed out to the Board during public expression, was that such an extension of the payback period will mean lots more in interest payments and will more than double the overall pension debt.

But hey, that’s not our problem now. That’s years off, and by then no one will remember who made this particularly disastrous decision.

* * *

Remember the Criminal Justice Center the County wanted to build on the Brush Street Triangle northeast of central Ukiah? The Board of Supervisors hired CEO Tom Mitchell largely on the basis that Mitchell had claimed to have personally been responsible for a big new Justice Center in Calaveras County.

Turns out Mitchell was just one of a number of people who participated in the regional Justice Center in the Sierra Foothills (not just for Calaveras County) but hardly the driving force.

Soon after Mitchell’s arrival, official Mendo began coveting its own spiffy new Criminal Justice Center at the Brush Street Triangle. It would combine the jail, the courthouse, the DA, probation, and juvenile hall (but not a County Farm, as everyone over there blathers about). It cost over $50k just for this dead-in-the-water conceptual study. The Supes just as quickly abandoned that idea when they looked at the enormous price tag of over $150 million.

But new state legislation has revived part of the idea: the new courthouse part — but none of the other law enforcement stuff.

“The existing courthouse will be vacated,” says the dry language of the latest proposal which “does not include adaptive re-use of existing facilities.”

The new courthouse would incorporate nine fancy new courtrooms and judicial support offices, but would be far short of anything like a “criminal justice center.”

A whole new structure just for judges, is what we're talking about here.

According to modern judicial standards (standards set by judges, of course, reinforced by the legislature lawyers who are American government and whose archetype is Joe Lieberman, a lawyer of course), nine courtrooms and support staff — without the DA’s offices — requires at least 81,000 square feet. But that’s not enough for our black robes. They want a three-story courthouse with 114,000 square feet plus a basement with nine “secure” parking spaces all for themselves.

To say that the new courthouse design is gold plate-extravagant hardly begins to describe the extravagance. This monstrosity will also include a “children's waiting room” complete with appropriate reading material for the little bast…, er, the kids, plus a television and computer areas as well as a large toy storage locker. You may be going down for life, but your kids will have a nicely appointed playroom as the bailiff attaches your manacles.

“If funding is made available,” say the consultants, “land acquisition can begin in 2009, construction in 2013 and completion in 2015.”

And if you believe that, we’ve got a nice 34,000 square foot old courthouse in Ukiah we’d like to sell you. Centrally located. Filtered views. A perfect fixer-upper!

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