Overland Park council denies request for $3 million to fund specialists trained for de-escalating mental health calls

Overland Park city council members Monday denied the first big ask of the city’s new mental health task force — a $3 million request that would have created a division of specialists within the police department to de-escalate mental health calls.

Even the seven members of the council’s committee of the whole who voted against the 2021 budget request said they were sympathetic to the proposal, which would have had officers trained in de-escalation available around the clock for the mental health calls. But they said they voted it down because of concerns that it was ill-timed, coming as the pandemic is wreaking havoc on the city’s tax revenue stream. The plan would have involved a property tax increase in the neighborhood of three quarters of a mill.

“Everybody in their heart wants to see this,” said Councilmember Jim Kite. But Kite and the majority said they’d rather wait a year to give the council more time to figure out the needs and have a better idea of how the coronavirus will affect future revenues. Others balked at the idea of a tax increase during difficult economic times.

The mental health task force is an advisory committee made up of people with a professional or personal interest in mental health issues. It was formed after Sheila Albers, founder of JoCo United, urged city officials to address how police respond to calls that involve people in mental crises. Albers’ son, John, was shot and killed by a police officer two years ago as he backed out of the family driveway.

Councilmember Chris Newlin, chair of the task force, said its members believe the coronavirus coupled with calls for social justice in policing have created a “perfect storm,” of challenges for police officers.

“I do know this is a pandemic and raising taxes is not something anyone wants to do. But if there’s a need and it’s crying out there for us, let’s get it to that public hearing,” said task force chair Chris Newlin. File photo.

The proposal would have added eleven crisis-intervention trained officers, seven co-responders and one sergeant to the force to deal with an expected wave of mental health calls in the near future. The police have seen 10,000 such calls the past three years, but are only able to respond with crisis-trained personnel in about 20 percent of them, he said.

Adding the staff would take care of nearly every call, he said. The cost would be less than $9 a year for every $100,000 of property value, or $17 extra for a $200,000 home, Newlin estimated.

The investment is “very minimal,” he said. “I do know this is a pandemic and raising taxes is not something anyone wants to do. But if there’s a need and it’s crying out there for us, let’s get it to that public hearing,” he said.

Councilmember Holly Grummert also supported the idea, saying the need is increasing and it will take some time to get the new people hired.

Councilmember Logan Heley said the action would be a first step toward addressing something that has been long talked about as a priority. Overland Park’s taxing rate of 13.5 mills is already the lowest in Kansas and is far lower than other larger cities in Johnson County, he noted.

“We’ve been talking since I’ve been on the council about getting 24/7 mental health co responders and at a certain point we need to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “This is an important step forward.”

Others said they were uncomfortable with the short time they’ve had to think it through but voted for it to give the public a chance to weigh in during the August budget public hearing.

Those who voted against it said that it would be better to wait until next year. Councilmembers Paul Lyons and Faris Farassati agreed that the city might benefit from a longer look at how the initiative might be paid for and structured. Kite said he’d prefer the idea go to the voters, although it’s too late for this fall’s election.

Since the committee voted it down, the idea can’t be reconsidered during the budget public hearing in August. Voting for it were Councilmembers Fred Spears, Curt Skoog, Newlin, Grummert and Heley. Voting against were Councilmembers John Thompson, Tom Carignan, Stacie Gram, Scott Hamblin, Kite, Lyons and Farassati.

The committee later passed a proposed budget that does not include the task force request. That budget still adds one co-responder and one crisis-intervention trained officer.