South Bend announces funding for mental health center – South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the aftermath of St. Joseph County Commissioners tabling a funding agreement that would pay for the construction and operation of a behavioral crisis center, South Bend Mayor James Mueller announced Tuesday that the city will step in to provide funds for the mental health center.
In a release, the city announced it will supply $2.66 million in American Rescue Plan funding to pay for the crisis center in a partnership with Oaklawn. The behavioral crisis center is being built in the existing Epworth Hospital in downtown South Bend and will provide 14 beds for residents in need of emergency mental health care.
The money will pay for building expenses as well as for the first year of the center’s operation. Oaklawn will run the center, which is expected to be completed in the late spring and has been in the works since late 2021 as a partnership between local governments, Oaklawn, Memorial Hospital and local police agencies.
“After years of collaboration, I am glad our community is ready to establish a crisis center and fill in gaps in our mental health services,” Mueller said in a statement. “This partnership between the city and Oaklawn provides the funding necessary for the buildout of the center and its initial operation costs.”
The city has previously pledged money for the crisis center, though the initial plan was for city dollars to support the center’s operations in its second and third year, while county funds would pay for the initial installation costs. The county commissioners’ decision to table their funding meant the city needed to step in quickly, Mueller said, in an interview with The Tribune.
“We’re making sure this project stayed on track,” Mueller said.
Officials have had discussions about the center for two years. But it gained traction in August after police fatally shot Donte Kittrel, 51. Officials later learned that he was suffering from a mental health event.
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News that the city will step in to fund the center’s first year marked a “step in the right direction” for groups supportive of the crisis center, though they cautioned that the announced funding does not mean the issue is solved for good.
“I’m very pleased the city is stepping up, I really appreciate their leadership. At the same time, I am very aware that the county still hasn’t finished with its commitment and I don’t want to let them off the hook,” said Rebekah Go, who has been involved with Faith In Indiana‘s efforts to make the center a reality. She added Faith in Indiana leaders had a productive meeting with Baxmeyer on Tuesday.
St. Joseph County councilors approved around $2.7 million to pay for the center in a unanimous vote in late 2021. The original plan for the project was for Beacon Medical Group to operate the crisis center, with support from Oaklawn, but in projecting construction costs and licenses, officials realized it would be more cost-effective to have Oaklawn staff and run the center.
Plans for the center hit a snag in recent weeks when county commissioners tabled a deal that would provide county funding for the project.
However, the commissioners’ decision to table to a contract with Oaklawn effectively undid the council’s prior allocation and dozens of community members, activist groups and public officials — including Mueller and South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski — spoke out against the vote to table the funding.
At that meeting, commissioners Carl Baxmeyer and Derek Dieter cited questions about the ability to pay for the center over the long term. The fallout from the commissioners vote led, in part, to St. Joseph County Health Officer Robert Einterz announcing his resignation. In an interview with The Tribune, Einterz said the decision to the table funding was the latest instance of commissioners’ “harassment of the health department.”
With the city stepping in, the center will have enough funding to operate for a year — giving residents a place to received emergency mental health care. For police, the implementation of the center means officers will have a place to take individuals suffering from mental health crises instead of putting them in jail or the emergency room.
“In law enforcement we try to be trained in all aspects of our jobs, but one thing we are not is professional mental health experts and that’s where we need individuals in the crisis center to help us in that mission of making sure the community is safe struggling with mental health crisis,” said St. Joseph County Sheriff Bill Redman, who has been a vocal supporter of the crisis center.
Funding for the center beyond the first year is still up in the air. It’s possible county commissioners will approve the funding they tabled, though the measure will now have to be approved by the newly elected county council. Einterz does not have faith the council — which has a new Republican majority — will approve the funding, he said.
Baxmeyer did not respond to a phone call seeking comment on the city’s pledge. Mueller said the city is still willing to work with the county on funding for the crisis center and other mental health collaborations. However, he feels the sentiment expressed by commissioners that individual measures on mental health can’t move forward unless a wholistic plan is in place is misguided.
“We want to work with county partners, but we have to keep things moving forward,” Mueller said.
Commissioner Deb Fleming told The Tribune on Tuesday that she’s supportive of funding the center. She said she would support a proposal at the commissioners’ level should the council approve funding.
“We have the new members of the council, and I’d like to go, you know, catch up more with what they’re doing,” Fleming said. “Hopefully, we can all work together to make the right things happen.”
Beyond St. Joseph County, officials have expressed optimism that additional state resources for mental health care will become available in upcoming legislative sessions.
“My hope is not only the city and the county stepping up locally, but the state of Indiana will also step up to provide funding for these types of crisis centers and other mental health issues,” Redman said.
Email Marek Mazurek at Follow him on Twitter: @marek_mazurek


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