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March 11, 2003

Mental health funds delayed

From: Detroit News, MI - 11 Mar 2003

Metro groups say they're suffering because of fight over Wayne County's $530 million agency

By Paul Egan / The Detroit News

Agencies serving the mentally ill that receive funding through Wayne County charge that slow payments under new County Executive Robert Ficano are threatening their services to clients.

But Ficano officials say payments to some agencies that contract with the Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency have slowed for three main reasons: a backlog of unprocessed contracts left by the prior administration of Executive Edward H. McNamara; a Nov. 22 FBI raid on mental health offices that removed financial records; and Ficano's requirements of stricter financial accounting.

Payment issues are among those expected to be discussed when the mental health board meets in Detroit today.

Reichelle Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Deaf Options Inc. in Detroit, said slow payments from Wayne County -- which processes payments for the mental health agency -- contributed to the recent disappearance from a group home of a 63-year-old woman who is deaf and schizophrenic.

Yvonne Berscheid left the home in the Boston-Edison historic district March 4, just before a major snowstorm, and has remained missing during near record-cold temperatures, Anderson said Tuesday.

Anderson said staffing at the home was cut prior to Berscheid's disappearance because of about $43,000 in past-due payments from the county.

Deaf Options has not received a check since January, Anderson said.

Anderson said she didn't have the money to replace a staffer who left and the home was operating with one full-time employee, instead of two. "It's directly related," she said of Berscheid's disappearance. "How are you going to hire a new employee if you know you should have money, but you don't know when it's coming?"

At least two other agencies with county mental health contracts say they've been hurt by slow payments since Jan. 1, when Ficano took over from McNamara, who did not seek re-election.

Mohamed Okdie, chairman of the mental health board, said the delays are related to Ficano's firing of the agency's top financial officials and attempts to isolate Patricia Kukula, the former McNamara appointee whom the board hired as executive director.

"What's going on here is a battle for control of the agency," which has an annual budget of $530 million and helps provide services to about 75,000 people, Okdie said.

"There is no reason in the world why people should not be getting paid."

But Ficano officials -- who said they'd received no complaints about slow payments from the agencies until this week -- said politics have nothing to do with any delays.

Dorothy Gonzales, the county's director of health and community services, said new officials who came in with Ficano confronted a backlog of more than 60 mental health contracts that had not been processed by the McNamara administration. A Nov. 22 FBI and Michigan State Police raid on county offices, including the county mental health offices, resulted in many financial records being carted off by police, she said.

And Ficano ended a practice of automatically depositing a one-twelfth share of an agency's contract amount in its bank account each month, Ficano spokeswoman Sharon Banks said. Instead, each agency must submit monthly invoices, which an ordinance allows the county 45 days to pay, Banks said.

"We've been requiring that they have the proper documentation," said Carla Sledge, the county's deputy chief financial officer. "It has not always been the case in the past."

In fact, though payments to Deaf Options are not being sent like clockwork, as in the past, they are not past due, Banks said. The last invoice received from the agency, for just over $40,000, was dated Feb. 10 and received Feb. 13, Banks said. The county has 45 days to pay its bills, she said.

On Monday, the director of a Lincoln Park agency that serves mentally ill American Indians invited the Internal Revenue Service to seize her county-owned furniture in lieu of federal payroll taxes she owes.

"This agency wants no ties to either political camp that is warring in Wayne County," said Fay Givens, executive director of American Indian Services Inc., in her letter to the IRS. "We question also, why prompt payment requirements related to federal grants are not being followed and why it is being allowed."

Givens said the county owes her agency about $100,000. Nearly all her agency's revenues come from the mental health agency, which is nominally a city-county operation but is managed and largely controlled by Wayne County. Sledge said a payment to American Indian Services was recently processed by the county, though it apparently had not been received by the agency as of Tuesday.

Other agencies say they too have been hit by delayed payments but have drawn on other funding sources to help make up the shortfall.

"We can sort of rob Peter to pay Paul," said Sheilah Clay, president and chief executive officer of the Neighborhood Service Organization in Detroit.

Clay's agency was approaching desperation until it received significant payments in the last two weeks, officials said. Clay attributed the problems to an understandable learning curve for the new administration.

At Deaf Options, Anderson said she's dodging creditors and staff members have had to hide a van used to transport deaf clients to keep the dealership from repossessing it.

You can reach Paul Egan at (313)222-2310 or

Copyright © 2003 The Detroit News.