Deschutes County commissioners are asking Bend and Redmond for an annual contribution to keep the county’s 24/7 stabilization center open on weekends. The facility houses all the county’s crisis response services, which assist law enforcement and divert people from hospital emergency rooms.
Grant funding supporting the 24/7 operation is set to expire in June, and not being able to secure stable funding has created a more immediate problem: trouble hiring and retaining staff because permanent positions cannot be guaranteed.
Phil Chang, one of three county commissioners, said long-term commitments from numerous partners, especially the county, are needed to sustain a 24/7 operation.
“One of the questions that is coming up from entities who we are requesting funding partnership from is, ‘What is the county contributing to the operation of the stabilization center?’” Chang said. “We have not made an anchor or foundational general fund commitment from the county to the stabilization center thus far, and I think we need to do that if we want to ask other entities in the community to make a similar kind of commitment to us.”
The County Commission recently converted 14.5 positions at the stabilization center from limited to regular in an effort to stabilize staffing and demonstrate commitment. Chang thinks it indicates the commission’s willingness to invest general fund dollars as needed during the next budget cycle.
In letters sent in late August, the Deschutes County Commission asked the Bend City Council to consider an annual contribution of $400,000 and the Redmond City Council to consider an annual contribution of $250,000.
The facility opened in Bend in June 2020 and provides services including walk-in appointments for people in mental health crisis, adult respite services, peer support and forensic diversion programs. Since opening there have been more than 3,600 visits and more than 1,100 people served. Of those, 62% were Bend residents while 16% were Redmond residents, the County Commission said in its appeal to the cities.
More than 340 people were dropped off by law enforcement, and of those, 63% were from Bend Police Department, and 14% were from Redmond Police Department.
Police drop-offs have consistently averaged less than five minutes, which the county argues has saved police officers time and improved public safety.
“In addition, by providing law enforcement an alternative place to bring someone in a mental health crisis, emergency department and jail utilization are also reduced, resulting in significant savings to the system as a whole,” commissioners said in the letters to the cities.
Holly Harris, the program manager for the county’s crisis services, said the stabilization center has managed to operate at full capacity despite staffing issues, which she said has been the biggest challenge. Harris said 30% of the staff positions at the facility are vacant.
“As you know, operating a facility like this with this many staff without knowing from year to year whether the funding will be there or not creates incredible challenges for staff retention as well as just operations,” Harris said during a joint meeting in early September with county commissioners and the city of Bend.
Harris told The Bulletin that 37 staffers work at the stabilization center, and that the vast majority of the vacant positions are master’s level clinicians for alternative shifts including on the mobile crisis team, nights and weekends.
Harris said that in her 20 years in the field, she has never experienced such a difficult staffing situation, adding that recruitment and retention has been a challenge for crisis teams statewide.
“Recruiting is hard everywhere right now, but is even more challenging when positions are limited duration, which means they may end when funding expires,” Harris said in an email.
Eric King, the city manager of Bend, said that while there is no major opposition to the county’s request, the city has followed up looking for more information about the funding needs and the existing funding sources to put the request into context.
King added that funding for the stabilization center should be discussed among the emergency homelessness task force that was co-created by the city and county to explore solutions for homelessness. While a quarter of the people served at the center are homeless, according to the county, King thinks it is an important resource that should be looked at in the totality of services needed to support those most vulnerable.
“I think that there’s all sorts of opportunities for us to think really comprehensively about how we as a community, whether it’s city or county government, fund the support systems that are needed, whether they’re services or housing,” King said. “The emergency homelessness task force is kind of a mechanism to put all that together more comprehensively versus sort of looking at each of these requests in isolation of each other.”
Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky said the city’s ability to financially fulfil the request will be in part dependent on if voters approve a ballot measure in May to fund the city’s new public safety facility. The city plans to move and expand its police station and add an on-site day-time mental health triage center in collaboration with the county.
“If the ballot measure passes, then the city would have more capacity for those kinds of requests,” Witcosky said. “If it doesn’t pass, then we’d be funding payments on the new facility out of the general fund, which would make it extremely difficult for us to contribute at the level the county wants us to contribute at.”