Julia Shumway
The Bulletin

Deschutes County commissioners want to visit mental health crisis centers in more Oregon counties before they decide to start building one in Bend, but waiting too long to make that decision could cost the county about $1 million in grant money.

During a recent meeting, Commissioners Phil Henderson and Patti Adair balked at being asked to approve a contracting method for renovating a building near the county jail — a simple procedural step that doesn’t commit any county money yet. The two said they wanted to look at other centers in Oregon.

“I’m not comfortable until I go see some more,” Adair said. “I want to go see them.”

A stabilization center, meant to help people with serious mental health issues before they end up in the criminal justice system, is a top priority of the county’s health department as well as Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson and Bend Police Chief Jim Porter.

Local law enforcement agencies have seen dramatic increases in calls related to mental illness over the past several years.

Once it opens, the county’s stabilization center will let officers spend more time doing police work. Currently, if officers take a person experiencing a mental health break to a hospital emergency room they have to stay with that person for hours at a time. The stabilization center would let officers drop those individuals off with trained mental health professionals and then go back to their jobs.

A stabilization center has been part of the county health department’s plans for several years, and county employees toured nine facilities in Oregon, one in Snohomish County, Washington, one in San Francisco and one in Kansas City, Missouri, while planning Deschutes County’s future center.

County commissioners toured one facility, in Marion County, and plan to visit more in the coming weeks. Adair said the Marion County center had a lot of heart even though it was a “tacky building.”

“I want to be really frugal with what we’re doing,” Adair said. “I saw what Marion County is doing. They’re way bigger than us, and they spend less.”

The Marion County center, which is close to 25 years old, does all mental health evaluations for the nearby hospital.

The center has a strained relationship with the hospital, Deschutes County Crisis Program Manager Holly Harris told the commissioners. Henderson said he didn’t have that impression.

“I wouldn’t doubt if we had different experiences in our tours,” Harris said. “Presentations to commissioners might be more polished.”

The county’s health department wants to model its future crisis center on one in Kansas City. That center operates around the clock and helps people sober up and recover from mental health breaks through 23-hour respite periods.

Deschutes County would start with limited hours and plans to expand its operations to run 24/7. It also may move to a different building closer to St. Charles Bend or downtown as it expands, said George Conway, the county’s health services director.

“The stabilization center is primarily services,” he said. “It’s not primarily a building. We may have other options that will be grander or more compelling downstream.”

Commissioner Tony DeBone, who supported moving forward with construction, agreed.

“That facility is going to be valuable as a phase one,” he said. “It may not be the be-all, end-all.”

Initial estimates had the renovation costing about $1.6 million, but the health department reduced that estimate to about $950,000.

That cost is offset by two grants the county received, but the grants expire if work on the center doesn’t start soon.

“If we take too long, we will lose over a million dollars in funding that was hard to get for this project,” Conway said.

A $700,000 three-year grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance will pay for psychiatric services, but it requires that the stabilization center be open by early 2020, Harris said.

A second grant, through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, will provide about $1.65 million total over five years. About $350,000 is carved out for the stabilization center.

Henderson said he didn’t think waiting to start construction until after he and the other commissioners have seen other centers would make the county lose its grants.

“I’m not going to agree to it until we’ve seen some of these and we know what we’re building,” he said. “I don’t think we’re talking about a long delay. We’re talking about somewhere into March.”

—  Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com