County sets aside $8M in ARPA cash for mental health facility, funds animal shelter expansion

County officials continue to chip away at doling out nearly $31 million in federal pandemic relief funds — and this month they earmarked $8 million to go toward building a mental health facility.

The Johnson County Board of Commissioners’ American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, special committee, tentatively earmarked the cash for plans to build a mental health facility that could be operated by community corrections and a local health care provider, such as Johnson Memorial Health.

ARPA is a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package that delivered direct relief to Americans and distributed billions to states to respond to the pandemic and to give to cities, towns and counties. Indiana officials distributed $1.28 billion to communities, including about $30.7 million for Johnson County.

The money can be used for a variety of purposes, including responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency, negative economic impacts of the emergency, off-setting lost government revenue,

and capital improvement projects such as upgrading water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.

The county’s six-member ARPA committee is made up of the three county commissioners and three members of the Johnson County Council.

Officials have been meeting for several months to discuss how to spend the money. Most recently, the county approved $2.5 million in the federal dollars for street repairs and fiber expansion in April.

Much of the discussion around a mental health facility was abstract, as there are no set plans, designs or a location picked out. But officials on the ARPA committee said they recognized this was a need for the county, and for the Johnson County Sheriff’s office, whose resources are stretched.

“The word we need to focus on is ‘need,’” county commissioner Brian Baird said. “These people need our help.”

The discussion outlined a facility that would need to have space for people to stay overnight, and plans could include up to 25 beds at the location. Its main focus would be in county community corrections to help people experiencing a mental health issue who would otherwise go to to Johnson County jail.

The $8 million has just been tentatively set aside, and no official funding has been allocated yet.

Building a mental health facility is supported by the sheriff’s office, the county prosecutor’s office, and county judges.

Andy Barnhart, chief deputy at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, has been involved in discussions for a mental health facility for a few years now, he said.

The sheriff’s office is often involved in responding to mental health crisis calls with its Crisis Intervention Team. A facility in the county to take people in crisis would help the team better perform their jobs. Often, deputies have to find a place outside of the county in either Indianapolis or Columbus to find a place for people to stay for mental health treatment. But it is difficult to consistently find space, Barnhart said.

“This will help us to not have to keep responding to the same calls. It is a law enforcement issue in that we have to go back to the same houses over and over again,” he said.

Johnson County Sheriff Duane Burgess encourages the county to take the initiative and fund this type of project, he said.

“It seems like in Johnson County, we wait for someone else to develop it. Why can’t we be the people, the front runners for the development?” Burgess said.

On Tuesday, the committee also approved funding for an expansion of the Johnson County Animal Shelter.

Officials approved $1.2 million to go to the expansion, which is needed due to a increasing number of animals being brought in with not enough space to house them.

Plans for the expansion include building out the west end of the shelter to add more kennels for large dogs; at the moment, the shelter only has two such kennels. On the north side, a reception area will be added, along with nursing, exam rooms and meeting rooms for potential owners to meet pets that are up for adoption. The space for cats will also be enlarged.

“This is pretty much a direct result of the pandemic where people bought dogs or cats, and when they had to go back to work, they surrendered them,” county commissioner Kevin Walls said.

Additional funding for the county Crisis Intervention Team was also discussed and approved by the committee. The committee approved expending $200,000 initially to the team, and then another $150,000 each year for the next two years.

These funding allocations will be considered as formal ordinances by the county commissioners for approval.

An additional proposal to fund a mobile vaccination clinic trailer for the Johnson County Health Department was rejected by most committee members. It failed by a vote of 3-3, with the three county commissioners voting against it.

County Council member Ron Deer proposed the expense, using Marion County as an example of a nearby health department with a mobile vaccination clinic. He proposed the county get a 24-foot mobile trailer that was listed at costing around $39,000.

Betsy Swearingen, health department director, said a mobile clinic would be useful to catch children up on vaccinations, outside of the COVID-19 vaccine. She also said it could be used for maternal and child health screenings, smoking cessation or wellness checks. It could travel around the county, or be placed at events throughout the year, she said.

Ron West, a county commissioner, was opposed to the idea of a mobile clinic because he saw it as the health department expanding beyond its parameters. He did not believe the county should provide health care and vaccines to the general public, when local drug stores and private health care providers already do that, he said.

“I’m just not sure what you’re proposing is warranted or needed,” West said.

Swearingen disagreed, saying the mobile clinic would not expand the services the health department already provides. It would rather make those services more available to those who do not want to travel to get them.

“We’re just getting to them when they can’t get to us,” she said.