Technical Advisors to Take a Look at Johnson County Mental Health Center

OLATHE – Johnson County is bringing in a technical assistance team from a state association to do a quick operational evaluation of its financially troubled mental health center, according to county officials.

The team from the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas is scheduled to begin work today, said Assistant County Manager Maury Thompson. He said he hoped to have a report by the end of the month.

County Manager Hannes Zacharias said the review would be a “jumping off point” for conversations with the employees of the county mental health center, who he said are in the best position to offer solutions to the funding crisis.

“We have to unleash that creativity,” he said.

The county officials spoke Tuesday after attending the monthly meeting of the mental health center’s governing board.

The meeting came a month after the board placed the center’s executive director, Maureen Womack, on paid administrative leave. Her annual salary is about $146,000.

County officials and board members have declined to discuss the reasons for the action.

Zacharias said he hoped to resolve the situation with Womack within the next few weeks.

County officials have tapped Thompson to be acting center director, if that position remains in flux after the 90-day period expires, according to County Commission Chair Ed Eilert.

In addition to the issues with Womack, the county is grappling with a mental health center that, according to projections from the budget office, likely will need $1 million in additional county support to stay afloat through early next year.

The center had about $4.2 million in reserves at the start of 2009, according to a county budget document. But newer estimates project the center will be $900,000 in the red by year’s end.

Mental health officials have blamed the center’s financial woes on a various factors, including cuts in state funding and a loss of fee-generating positions at the center.

County funding accounts for roughly half the mental health center budget. Other sources include fees for service and support from state and federal government. Next year’s county spending plan calls for a mental health center budget of approximately $28.4 million.

County officials and members of the mental health board said their emphasis would be on generating additional center revenue, rather than cutting services.

“I don’t see us cutting anything,” said board Chair Kevin Moriarty.

Womack officially is on paid leave. Those at Tuesday’s meeting debated the correct timeframe for replacing her but took no action on it.

Eilert said the search for her replacement should wait until the county has found a path toward financial viability for the center. He said that would be important in attracting the widest, most qualified pool of candidates.

But mental health board member Mary Uhl said that sounded like an “indefinite situation,” given the challenges of righting the center’s finances.

The budget issues are not new, she said, and have so far defied solution.

“What will happen to change the financial course of this institution before we have a replacement?” she asked.

Tina Richardson, a member of the mental health board, said moving quickly to find a new executive director would provide some stability for the center’s staff. But she also said she saw merits to waiting until the financial future is clearer.

The audience included mental health center retirees who expressed concern about financial and personnel issues with the center.

“It’s really heart breaking to see what this has come to,” said Sandy Robertson.

Tuesday’s board meeting was less than two weeks after county commissioners discussed the mental health center at their weekly meeting.

Then, commissioners assigned the county manager’s office to coordinate day-to-day operations and financial management of the center with the interim executive director.

Commissioner Steve Klika argued the commission should have gone further to have the county take over direct management of the center.

Eilert said he expected cooperation from the mental health center staff, and if that was not forthcoming, “then the board will consider whatever is appropriate from that standpoint.”

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