One of the hallmark func- tions of taxpayer-supported government at all levels has long been tending to the unmet needs of its most vulnerable populations.
Prime among those populations deserving compassionate attention and care in our community are hundreds of children without responsible and loving home environments and thousands of adults who live with mental-health issues and substance-abuse disorders.
For each of those groups, the need for assistance and care has skyrocketed in recent years, in large part as a result of the gnawing drug epidemic that has ravaged our community, state and nation.
As such, local agencies charged with overseeing the welfare of those groups cannot be expected to meet increased workloads and more complex demands without at least a consistently stable flow of resources.
That’s primarily why The Vindicator supports countywide Issues 2 and 3 on the Mahoning County general-election ballot.
Their renewal will stabilize funding and services at the county’s Mental Health and Recovery Board and Children Services agency, respectively.
The Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board seeks to renew its 0.85-mill operating levy for another five years and increase it to 1.35 mills, which would generate $5.4 million of its total $11 million annual budget.
The additional millage, however, is somewhat misleading in that it does not represent a long-term levy increase. Brenda Heidinger, mental-health board associate director, explained the agency’s property-tax issue essentially combines the board’s 0.85-mill levy with its other half-mill levy – which expires at the end of 2020 – into one levy.
Until that second half-mill levy expires two years from now, the revenue it generates – approximately $7 per year for the average property owner – will be funneled into a new competitive grant program to fund needed and long-delayed infrastructure improvement projects for agencies that serve the board.
As Heidinger put it, “Instead of running a levy every two to three years, we will run one levy every five years. Those extra dollars we spend on levy expenses can actually go to treatment services.”
That’s a smart move, considering the increased strains and costs the enduring opiate epidemic has placed on the staff at the MCMHR board.
Duane Piccirilli, the board’s executive director, said the revenue from levy passage would be used in part to increase mental-health services in county schools and address the area’s dire shortage of residential treatment centers for victims of the opiate epidemic.
That same epidemic has put unprecedented strains on operations of the Mahoning County Children Services agency as well. It is seeking renewal of its 1.85-mill levy to generate $8.2 million of its total $15.1 million annual budget. No new taxation is included in its levy request.
Just how burdened is Mahoning Children Services these days? Randall Muth, Children Services executive director, reports that Mahoning County today has 186 children under state custody – the most since he became director nearly six years ago – and that number continues to steadily increase.
His department spends about $2 million per year on placement costs for those children.
With no end in sight to the drug crisis, there also is no end in sight to vastly increased demands for CSB and its staff.
The opioid crisis has expanded and altered the way the agency does business. Ordinarily, it aims to protect kids, intervenes to keep them with their families and, as a last resort, tries to place children in permanent homes. The bulk of their services traditionally involves keeping children in their homes.
Today, however, Muth points out it’s rarely safe for many children to remain in their homes.
In addition, the agency continues to witness an increased number of referrals and assessments from the opiate crisis. Those assessments require CSB to provide more services more frequently.
Given that substantial surge in workload and given that the levy represents about one-half of the agency’s funding, Muth is not mincing words when he argues levy defeat would prove “devastating” for the agency and for the many county children who rely on it for their protection and survival.
Editor’s Note: Details of the candidates’ positions on a range of issues can be found in Vindicator news stories, videos of Editorial Board interviews posted on vindy.com and by accessing the candidate survey forms on the website.