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Published: Monday, 3/28/2005

Agencies OK study to explore merging

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Three times Lucas County voters were asked to back an alcohol and drug treatment levy, and three times they turned it down.

Meanwhile, the county's mental health board seems to have little trouble garnering public support, winning its most recent levy last year.

That dichotomy has some people in the community, particularly county Commissioner Pete Gerken, wondering whether it makes sense to combine the two agencies in hopes of leveraging more money for drug and alcohol treatment.

Mr. Gerken recently got both agencies to approve a feasibility study to explore the idea.

"Both organizations are similar," he said. "Obviously, we know the crossover between drug and alcohol, and mental health on dual diagnosis. It's about tax dollars and it is about efficiencies, but at the end of the day, as we struggle with less resources, how can we give those clients the best services?"

Whether merging the agencies offers the best way to serve clients is up for debate.

Gary Tester, director of the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, said he thinks having separate agencies is the best approach at the state and local levels.

He said he believes having "separate departments at the state level gives the best opportunity for consumers to have the best possible representation for the unique needs that both mental health and alcohol and other drug consumers have."

Bill Sanford, president and chief executive of Compass, a drug and alcohol treatment provider that receives funding from ADAS, agrees the community would be better served by keeping the mental health and ADAS agencies separate. But from a practical perspective, he thinks a merger must be explored.

He points to the three levies ADAS lost from March, 2000, to May, 2002, as evidence that the agency needs to examine finding other ways to obtain funding. He said counties that have combined drug treatment and mental health boards are more successful at the ballot box.

"We don't have the luxury to say we don't want to do that [feasibility] study, that we don't want to look at it. Why not?" Mr. Sanford asked. "If there are some efficiencies of operating as one board, we need to explore that."

Jay Salvage, former executive director of Lucas County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, said no ADAS board in Ohio has been able to pass a levy. That said, he thinks any new levy would have a tough time gaining approval from voters, including a new levy for a combined mental health and ADAS board, so merging the agencies may not be the solution some are assuming it would be.

Across the state, there are seven counties that have separate mental health and alcohol and drug addiction services boards, said Sam Hibbs, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Mental Health.

Forty-three combined boards exist in Ohio, some serving multiple counties.

Mr. Hibbs said Michael Hogan, director of the state mental health department, said the decision about whether to merge is a local one, but that the focus should be on doing what's best for people with mental illness or substance-abuse problems.

Glen Lammon, interim executive director of Lucas County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, said his board supports the study, but he's not convinced the agency is incapable of persuading voters to pass a levy. The levy request received backing by 48 percent of the voters.

Mr. Lammon also isn't sure whether any savings netted by combining the agencies would be worth a potential loss in services. The Lucas County Mental Health Board has an annual budget of about $41 million, while the ADAS budget is about $10.2 million.

"I'm sure there may be some cost savings, but when you look at the cost savings in terms of delivery of services to the consumer, I don't know," he said. "The thing to do is try to be as objective as possible and look at all the facts.

"At this stage, I'm hesitant to say that there would be any advantage to it, but without doing the study we won't know," Mr. Lammon said.

Phyllis Endicott, chairman of the ADAS board, said the board will "respect the process" of a study, but she doesn't see much of an advantage in merging.

"We would not gain any funds but there's the possibility of some good coming out of this process," she said. "We, historically, have not been in favor of a merger."

Jackie Martin, executive director of the mental health board, said her board supports the study.

"The board has taken the position that following a due diligence process was the appropriate thing to do," Ms. Martin said. "The board felt if consumers would be the beneficiaries of some kind of collaboration between the two boards, it would be worth looking at," he said. "They took no position on whether it was good or bad in absence of that due diligence study."

Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the board of commissioners, proposed holding hearings about combining the agencies in 2003, but that never happened. A state law allowed commissioners to merge the agencies by the end of 2003. She said if the county wanted to make the move now, it would have to get approval from the state legislature.

"It's hard to pass new tax levies and ADAS in particular has had that difficulty," Ms. Wozniak said. "Knowing that might cause them an instability in regular funding and that other communities have this structure, I thought it might be worthwhile for our community to consider that."

Commissioner Maggie Thurber said she doesn't understand why her colleagues on the board would push for a merger if the boards aren't seeking it. In addition, she questioned the plan to have the feasibility study conducted by representatives of each board and someone from the commissioners' office. She would prefer that an objective third party conduct the study if one has to be done.

"If you're going to do it in-house, are you going to pre-determine the outcome?" Ms. Thurber asked. "That's been my experience so far with this new board [of commissioners]. And it would concern me greatly."

Contact Dale Emch at: daleemch@theblade.com or 419-724-6061.



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