MOUNT VERNON — City council members took the first step Monday to add a community advocate to the rolls of the Mount Vernon Police Department.
The advocate, who will hold a master's degree and be a licensed independent social worker, will assist the MVPD with calls relating to mental health, substance abuse, and suicide.
“We have so many of these calls these days, and it's not getting any better with the climate we're in right now,” said Police Chief Robert Morgan. “We feel this can be a great benefit to the police department and the community in general.”
Morgan said the department handles 900 to 1,100 of these types of calls a year.
“If we can reduce our recidivism with mental health calls, if we can get people better help sooner, if we can take the burden off of them for criminal charges and reduce the burden on the prosecutor and criminal system … Jail is not always the best place for people in crisis. We need to get them help,” he said. “We're venturing out on a different path for getting people assistance.”
The position will pay a salary of $63,000 plus benefits. The Knox County Foundation awarded the city a $100,000 grant over two years, and a private donor will contribute another $20,000 for the first year once council approves the position.
“So what we're looking for now is the balance of the cost of the program, which basically is the benefits package,” Morgan said. “The total would be about $30,000, the city's contribution to the program this year.
“Going forward, we plan for a two-year program to see the feasibility of it,” he continued. “I have great faith in it; I believe it's going to be a pilot program for a lot of other police departments.”
If the private funding or grants are not available the second year of the program, the city's contribution will be $50,000.
The foundation set a time frame of 180 days, starting from Feb. 15, for the city to begin implementing the program.
“We're at 60 days right now on getting the financing,” said Morgan.
Auditor Terry Scott said that the city won't have to fund 100% of the $30,000 this year since it's already April. The actual amount might be 50% depending on when the program is implemented.
He also said an analysis of overtime since the MVPD switched to 12-hour shifts showed the reduction in overtime is really substantial.
“As you multiply those savings over the months, I believe, as the chief does, we will be able to garner those extra dollars from resources that they won't be using in overtime,” Scott said.
The job description is written. Office space and furniture are arranged; the next step is council's approval for the remaining funding and advertising for candidates.
“Will one advocate be able to handle all of those 900 to 1,100 calls? No, they will not,” Morgan said. “But we have to start somewhere, and this is the ground floor.”
Morgan said that Mount Vernon Nazarene University and Kenyon College have expressed interest in the program, and he is looking to expand it.
“Ultimately, I would like to see one licensed social worker on every shift,” he said. “We may never have it where we have 24/7/365 coverage, but we have to start somewhere. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a start.”
Morgan anticipates the advocate will work the first month on a daytime schedule getting things in place, and then switch to a day/evening time frame.
“Two to 10 is a more reasonable time frame,” he said, adding that the department will track the calls to obtain more concrete data as the calls come in. “There are going to be gaps in coverage with only one person.”
Safety-service Director Richard Dzik said that even if the advocate cannot respond to a call, he or she can still put the individual in touch with existing social support services. Additionally, Morgan said officers can reach the advocate via phone and get advice on response and/or referral services.
“There's a training component to this,” he said. “We can train our officers to be better at what they do when that person is not there.”
Morgan has reached out to several agencies to inform them about the advocate program, noting that one entity was not enthusiastic. He said the advocate is not a replacement for long-term care. Rather, the advocate is on-the-spot to start the continuum of care earlier.
Dzik agreed and acknowledged that an entity might fear the loss of business, but noted that the city's priority is taking care of its citizens, not worrying about whether an existing entity loses business.
“We need to do what's best for our citizens, not what's necessarily best for one entity,” he said. “ We're not replacing what these entities are doing; a lot of time we're going to be referring our citizens to these other entities. … I think we should be leading this from the front. We need to take the reins of making sure we can link our citizens with the right resources. Having someone in the hospital over the weekend just because an agency wasn't operating at that time isn't what we're looking for.”
“When you talk about mental health, this is one of those steps in that best practices regimen,” said Councilman Tanner Salyers. “Looking at how much things cost, sometimes we have to take a step back and say can we afford not to do this."
Council member Tammy Woods said that she fully supports the program but was concerned that funding might come back as a responsibility of the general fund. Morgan said if grants or outside funding is not available, funding would come from the income tax levies dedicated to city safety services, not the general fund.
Council members elected to give the advocate ordinance a first reading so that the community has an opportunity to make comments and provide input.
In other business, council waived the third reading and adopted an ordinance vacating an unused part of Kirk Street. Lifepoint Church owns the property to the north and south of the street.
The city's Municipal Planning Commission recommended vacating the undeveloped portion. Safety-service Director Dzik said that making Kirk Street a through street to South Division Street is not feasible because of the traffic congestion at the western terminus on South Main Street.
Council also postponed until April 26 the third reading of an ordinance relating to compensation for council members and the city treasurer. Council member Samantha Scoles, chair of the Employee and Community Relations Committee, wanted to give the community an opportunity to chime in after council amended the salaries.
Ordinance 2021-09 originally renewed council members' salaries at $8,378 a year for 2022 and 2023 and the city treasurer's salary at $8,888 for years 2022-25. However, due to changes in the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, at those rates council members and the treasurer are not making enough each month to be credited with a full year of service for retirement purposes. Council amended the salaries as follows:
--Council members: $9,059 in 2022 and $9,218 in 2023
--City treasurer: $9,059, $9,218, $9,379, and $9,543 for years 2022-25, respectively
Councilman Salyers disagreed with amending the rates. He said that even though the increases are minuscule, it is bad timing with recent hikes in wastewater rates and the city needing to fund the community advocate position. Scoles, who is not on the ballot for re-election, said she felt salaries needed to be built up to a point where there is some incentive for residents to serve on council.
“Even though that's not why I chose to serve, and I don't believe that's why you're serving … there may be a time when this is what attracts them,” she said.
Councilman Mike Hillier also noted that PERS does help in a retirement situation.
Council also took the following actions:
--Waived the third reading and adopted an amended ordinance relating to the composition and terms of members of the Patriotic Memorial Committee. Members are a county commissioner, a Veterans Service officer, three citizen members with one being a veteran, two ex-officio members (a council member and clerk of council), and Mount Vernon's mayor. Term limits will be one year for the citizen members and VSO, with the ability to serve consecutive terms.
--Amended the salary of the newly created position of director of human resources from $70,000 to $72,000. Dzik said the increase was necessary to attract a qualified candidate. He noted that the county also had to increase its salary for its recently created HR position.
--Accepted the Mount Vernon Municipal Court's recommendation to increase salaries by 2.5% for Probation Officer #4 and the MERIT Court coordinator. Both positions are totally funded through a Justice and Reinvestment Incentive Grant (JRIG).
--Gave a first reading to a contract with College Township and Kenyon College to provide fire and EMS services
--Gave a first reading to an ordinance fixing the number of hourly employees in the fire department
--Gave a first reading to legislation authorizing the sale or trade of a 2010 Dodge Charger that the fire department no longer needs
--Accepted supplemental appropriations in the amount of $24,000 from unappropriated funds to upgrade panic alarm systems and $2,000 from the Ariel Foundation for maintenance on the CA&C rain garden
--Gave a second reading to legislation adopting changes in the city's codified ordinances
The city's Clean-up Week is slated for May 10-15. Residents pay $10 a load; the city pays the rest. Residents can take items to Republic Service, 107 Tilden Ave., Monday through Friday, 7:30 am to 3 pm and Saturday 8 am to noon. Click here for more information.
The city will dedicate a historical marker on Public Square in honor of Dr. Ellamae Simmons on Friday, May 7. Simmons was a pioneer in the field of medicine, helping integrate the U.S. Army Nursing Corps and the dorms at The Ohio State University. She was the first African-American to specialize in asthma, allergy and immunology in the United States., and she created the Kaiser African-American Professional Organization.
The MVPD is now fully certified by the Ohio Collaborative. Information about the program and certification will be in the forms section on the city's website, https://mountvernonohio.org.
Law Director Rob Broeren announced that Justin Mackin was recently hired as the new second assistant law director.