Budget cuts could shut down mental health agencyWritten by John Rasche | | JRasche@toledofreepress.com
Area residents could lose a mental health organization’s free services if Lucas County’s Mental Health and Recovery Services Board decides to cut funding for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Toledo (NAMI). If NAMI’s funding is cut, many of Toledo’s mentally ill will lose the free programs they depend on.
The Mental Health and Recovery Services (MHRS) Board has distributed state funding to NAMI and other local mental health agencies in the past, but this year may be different. Due to a dramatic cut in Ohio’s funding, the board will decide on Feb. 28 whether to keep NAMI alive.
The decision to remove funding from NAMI is a result of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board’s own financial trouble. The Board survived a cut of $1 million of Ohio State funds last year, but is required to cut a minimum of $1.7 million by this June — roughly 10 percent of the board’s entire budget.
“We are no longer in a position to absorb cuts using our cash reserves,” MHRS Executive Director Scott Sylak said. “We understand that every agency we fund, including NAMI, provides a service that greatly helps the community, but there are things that we will have to go without.”
Although MHRS must cut $1.7 million from the organization’s budget this year, the board agreed to adopt an even larger budget cut of
$2.2 million in order to avoid more costly cuts in the future. If MHRS complied with the minimum amount of budget cuts this year, the organization would have to pay double the difference in 2014, Sylak said.
Although sympathetic with the plight of NAMI, Sylak said the MHRS Board must sacrifice some funding to keep other service agencies available in Toledo.
To determine how an agency affects Toledo residents, the board conducted an opinion poll in the community among agencies that rely on MHRS funding. NAMI’s score was low, Sylak said.
“We have a very important task in ensuring that individuals of the community who are mentally ill or have problems with substance abuse have access to our services and get help,” Sylak said. “But the budget cuts mean some (individuals) will go unserved. That is very serious to us and we are trying to work out a solution.”
NAMI Education Director Lisa Canales said she believes that a loss of the board’s funding will force the agency to close down.
“We understand that there have to be cuts,” she said, “but to completely defund our agency, it will shut the doors.”
The agency was prepared for less funding after MHRS had warned mental-health care agencies that there would be a budget cut, but NAMI was not prepared to lose all $130,000 of MHRS’ funding, half of NAMI’s yearly budget.
“There just isn’t a whole lot to cut,” Canales argued in defense of her four-person staff, which operates through a team of unpaid volunteers. “I just can’t wrap my mind around it. [The Board] gets so much more out of how little they give us.”
According to the NAMI’s website, the agency has served the community since 1982, when a group of concerned mothers rallied together to organize support groups. Originally known as BOOST (Building on Our Strengths Together), the active group of family members and consumers secured funding from both the Lucas County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board and the United Way of Greater Toledo. When BOOST was renamed NAMI in 1992, the agency continued to offer education classes, support groups and counseling to people affected by mental illness free of charge.
NAMI has attracted many uninsured individuals suffering from mental illness who are dependent on the agency’s free services. The exact number of people helped by NAMI is difficult to determine, but the agency has received just over 700 phone calls in the past six months alone. NAMI has also been chosen four times as Ohio’s affiliate of the year, NAMI’s website stated.
Supporters of NAMI immediately protested the board’s recommendation to withdraw funds from the agency. Former Toledo Mayor Jack Ford and Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur, among many others, have recently spoken up in support of NAMI.
Toledo Area Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit organization composed of 125 congregations and other nonprofits, has also joined the fight to keep NAMI funded by sending letters and emails to MHRS’ Board.
“Please don’t make the mistake of taking yet another group that helps those who are often overlooked in our culture,” Pastor Kurt Tomlinson of the Christ United Methodist Church wrote in a letter to the board. “Please make the right choice in keeping this organization strong and vital for our community. We need NAMI of Greater Toledo. Without them, Toledo and all of Lucas County will be poorer.”
If the board does decide on Feb. 28 to remove all funding from NAMI, the agency will have until this July to collect alternative funds in order to keep the agency open.
NAMI, as well as other agencies affected by MHRS’ budget cuts, will have the right to an appeal. The allocation of MHRS funds could change by May depending on the outcome of appeals or change in projected revenue.
“We are not going to take this sitting down,” Canales said. “We are trying to get funding support. It would be a huge loss for this community. We save lives every day. We’re not going down without a fight.”