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Dear Yellowstone County Commissioners:

Thank you for your work on behalf of the citizens of Yellowstone County! I have some idea how dauntingly challenging your job is from my perspective serving in the Montana State Legislature.

One thing that my seat on Judiciary, Law and Justice, and Local Government Committees during the past 12 years has brought into clear focus is the extent to which mental health services and issues land in the laps of local governments, most particularly counties. I have also come to appreciate how important it is that we address mental health community level services thoughtfully and carefully, or we will reap profound and dire consequences.

The recent report that Yellowstone County Commissioners serving on the Boards of the Hub and the Community Crisis Center were pushing an agenda that included moving these agencies out of their current location into a troubled building on the properties of Montana Rescue Mission set off a number of alarms and concerns that have rippled widely across the community.

I respectfully offer the following values to guide you in your deliberations:

Partnership and Stakeholders

The best decisions will be arrived at by including the people who do this day in and day out, who know the population served, and who also know the history and evolution and relationships which are so integral to quality and successful delivery of mental health services to our most vulnerable citizens. It is also critical to include those partners who have been at the table on this issue for decades, including the health care community, the business community, the neighborhoods affected, and more generally the wider community.

Planning

The best decisions are not unilateral and willy nilly, but rather arrived at with deliberation and a full scoping and analysis of the facts and history and all of the ramifications of decisions.

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It is dangerous to parachute in and focus on one thing, for instance the savings that Crisis Center has been carefully directed by its board to set aside for use to address facility needs and better serve its mission and clients. To leap from that one factor into a unilateral and unvetted push to a particular location or a particular solution is anything but deliberative and well planned. We need the broader context of planning and forethought and deliberation, mindful of the many factors including the fundamental mission of these agencies, the partnerships that underlie their mission and clientele and the vision to consider multiple options for meeting that mission and honoring those partnerships.

Transparency and Public Participation

As you move forward in major changes in delivery of mental health services to our most vulnerable population, the best outcomes will be achieved if you are committed to a transparent process with full public notice and opportunity for public engagement and comment. If service delivery is diminished, if the most vulnerable people are closed out, the result, as we all know, will land in the lap of the County - most likely the Yellowstone County Detention Center, or alternatively on the City of Billings police department, hospital emergency rooms and our public streets; to the profound detriment of everyone involved.

Accountability

The permanent levy was passed with clear understanding and commitment to the voters to address the needs of this population - persons who are addicted, who are seriously mentally ill, or suffering from co-occurring disorders in both diagnoses that reinforce and exacerbate their inability to function positively in community and society.

Ideas being proposed by the commissioners in recent public and private settings seriously challenge and undermine the good faith of the Yellowstone County electorate. That could jeopardize the good will and support of voters for the pubic safety levy moving forward, being doubly dangerous. If it is time to reconfigure how and where to deliver services, it must be done mindfully, giving great deference to the will of the voters when they passed the levy and their desire to address the population that is currently being served in these agencies.

So, again, you will come out of this in a much better place if you lift up and adhere to those values.

Sen. Margie MacDonald represents Senate District 26 in Yellowstone County. 

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