By SCOTT MILLER
St. Louis County may save the family mental health program by shuffling its property tax rate or scrapping the Depart-ment of Health’s solid-waste management division, County Council Chairman Skip Mange said at budget hearings last week.
“I’m just not going to accept complete cutting of the mental health program,” the Town and Country Republican told Rick Wolf, acting director of the County De-partment of Health. “I cannot approve this budget with mental health being taken out of it. We’re no longer cutting the 5 percent fat of government. We’re cutting services now.”
The mental health cut has become one of the most contentious cuts of County Exec-utive Charlie Dooley’s fiscal 2005 budget proposal.
The mental health program’s nearly 1,800 patients received county care for the last time on Nov. 16, but its 17 employees are being paid until Dec. 17 even though they’re not working. This year’s budget for mental health was about $1 million.
Wolf said the program closed on Nov. 17 to allow ample time for clients to be placed in private care and employees to search for new jobs.
“I just think it’s wrong to dump that on the private agencies out there to take care of these people,” said Councilman John Cam-pisi, R-south county. “I also find it wrong to give our employees 30 days’ notice, pay them for 30 days and not require them to work those 30 days when we have patients not receiving care.”
Mange said, “It’s a little bit aggravating that these decisions get made before the budget ever reaches the council.”
To generate the funds to keep the program open next year, Mange suggested shifting part of the county’s debt-service tax to the health fund as the county did last year.
Currently, the county collects 58 cents per every $100 of assessed valuation. Of that, 8.5 cents goes to the debt-service fund. Dooley’s 2005 budget proposal appropriates $14.6 million in debt payments.
The county last year diverted 1 cent of the debt service tax to the health department. The diversion generated $1.7 million, more than enough to spare mental health, but the debt-service tax has been restored to its regular level of 8.5 cents under Dooley’s proposal.
Mange also suggested dumping the health department’s Office of Solid-Waste Management because the state offers the same service.
For example, the state and county both issue permits for trash-transfer stations, the council chairman said.
Because the county has the sole power over zoning matters, Mange said it didn’t need the power to issue permits, a function of the health department’s solid-waste management division.
The state still couldn’t issue permits without county approval because the county would have to approve the zoning first.
“Why are we duplicating services of the state at the local level if we have zoning control?” Mange asked. “We’re duplicating it to the tune of some $600,000 or $800,000. Solid waste management is a function of public works. If we’re going to have to make severe cuts in the health department, let’s cut in areas there are duplicated services that don’t directly affect health services.”
Of the $600,000 to $800,000 Mange referred to, only about $250,000 would be available if solid waste was eliminated from the health department. The remaining money comes from landfill fees, not tax revenue, and is designated for a specific purpose.
But Mange said, “If we could find a way to put $500,000 back into this (health) budget, we could keep at least half of our family mental service. We may have to have fewer people, but we wouldn’t have to just get rid of the whole thing.”
Agreeing with Mange, Councilman Greg Quinn, R-west county, suggested transferring various departmental accountants into a centralized agency to save money. Individ-ual departments no longer would keep their own financial records, Quinn said.
Councilmen will meet with Dooley and his staff to consider ways to save the mental health program.
The council then will have another budget hearing with health department officials after Thanksgiving.