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Feeling pinched: Counties squeezed on several levels during mental health responses

Graham Jaehnig/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton County Undersheriff Kevin Coppo (left) and Baraga County Sheriff Joe Brogan, spoke at the May 27 mental health discussion at the Keweenaw County Courthouse, at which they discussed conducting mental health transports out of the Upper Peninsula are negatively impacting their county’s residents, their departments’ operations, and their counties’ economies.

om three counties say that costs associated with transporting mental health patients out of the western Upper Peninsula are squeezing county general funds, and are not reimbursed.

During a mental health presentation conducted at the Keweenaw County Courthouse on May 27, Keweenaw County Sheriff, Curt Pennala, an 16-year veteran of law enforcement, said that in the past several years, he has seen mental illness calls increase dramatically.

“Throughout my career I’ve seen this get worse every year,” he said, “but especially in the last nine months for us up here.”

Pennala said his agency is very small, protecting a small population. Yet, financially, as well as personnel-wise, transports and response calls for mental illness-related incidents are taxing the agency.

Because his is a law enforcement agency, the incidents his deputies respond to, he said, are the most volatile cases.

“The families are no longer able to help their loved ones,” he said, “and that’s where we’re getting called. Like I said, in the last year, we’ve seen a big increase up here. That’s part of why we put that (social media) post out.”

Pennala said the focus of his department has been on training and raising awareness. Training-wise, he and his deputies have all attended mental health awareness training, and are currently registered to receive crisis intervention training, which focuses on recognizing when someone is going through a crisis, and how the responding deputies can be better prepared to respond to those incidents and have the training and skills to de-escalate situations, rather than making it worse.

Houghton County Undersheriff Kevin Coppo, 24-year law enforcement veteran, was also present, concurred with Pennala.

“I would say seven years ago-ish, we’d seen a great spike in in mental health (calls).” he said.

His department was averaging approximately 75-80 mental health transports, until 2014, when the number spiked to approximately 120. At that time, he said, the transports were reimbursed by a mental health agency through a foundation, but since then, the county’s general fund has been forced to absorb the costs.

“It’s not even a line-item budget anymore, because the cost goes up and down so much through the year,” said Coppo. In addition to the economic burden, the ability of the agency to protect its jurisdiction becomes impaired.

For example, he said, in the event of a mental health call that necessitates deputies taking a patient to the nearest hospital, two deputies are necessarily removed from the road for 4-6 hours, which is more than half of their shifts for the day. Added to that is having to request someone come in on their days off to transport someone to Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie, or farther.

“Luckily,” Coppo said, “the department has continued to provide the service,” but with the pandemic and budget changes, continuing the service is impossible to predict from year to year.

Currently, he said the county is averages $60-80,000 per year just in transportation costs, mostly due to overtime. The figures do not include maintenance to the vehicles, gasoline and motel expenses, if a trip has to go as far as Grand Rapids or Detroit.

“There just isn’t the beds in the U.P. anymore, it seems,” he said.

The primary difference between Houghton County and Keweenaw County, Coppo said, is in Houghton County, his department has the jail.

“So, we see a lot of mental illness in the jail,” he said. “It’s a genetic mental illness or it’s a drug-induced mental illness, so we’ve got everything going against us.”

Coppo said the Sheriff’s Office works with Copper Country Mental Health (CCMH) to the best of its ability. Personnel from that agency come into the jail and do the best for what they have, and Dial Help has also been a partner.

“So, the only thing that’s hurting us, and Houghton County,” Coppo said, “is we’re losing those deputies off the road the second a crisis happens, which — if you look at an average day, there could be two deputies on and two (Michigan State Police) troopers on, but you take a major incident like a fire or an assault, and you have two guys at the hospital, we’re down; we rely on city P.D.s.”

On both May 23 and again on the 25th, Coppo said mental illness transports were conducted to the lower end of the state, leaving the county without a car for two shifts. Personnel are stretched too thin.

“So, that’s the big problem we have,” said Coppo: “Trying to work with Mental Health, trying to keep staff on the road, answering calls that are coming in — it’s a battle, but we make it work — most of the time.”

Joseph Brogan, 19-year law enforcement veteran and sheriff of Baraga County, echoed the same sentiments as Coppo and Pennala.

“In those years,” he said, “I’ve seen only an increase in the need for mental health (services).”

Brogan said his county agency is much smaller than Houghton’s, and he did not want to sound like a broken record, but “just like with these two, my department is the same thing.”

Brogan said that in considering the size of his department, when a mental health issue occurs, his department’s operations essentially cease.

“We don’t have anybody answering calls for service,” he explained, “we have to scramble somebody who should be on their day off and get another person to the hospital.”

Brogan said during the previous week, he had to order his staff out of the hospital after they were there for 18 hours, with no one to replace them.”

“They had to go home and get some sleep so they could get up when a bed was found and drive — this time it was to Saginaw,” Brogan explained.

To sum it up, he said, when the Baraga County Sheriff’s Office is tasked with a mental health incident, the Sheriff’s Department essentially ceases.

Brogan said that in reference to the two recent trips, both were to Saginaw.

“The last one in particular, both Marquette and War Memorial opted not to take this patient,” he said, “and we have no choice. Apparently, they do (have the choice), and that really puts a strain on our operation and on what we have to do.”

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