TRAVERSE CITY — It costs more per person for mental health services if you live in Grand Traverse County and commissioners may be willing to pay to find out why.

A resolution to hire a certified public accountant to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of Northern Lakes Community Mental Health is on the county board’s Wednesday meeting agenda.

Information provided commissioners in June by NLCMH shows a range of per-person costs from $2.33 for Wexford County’s 32,915 residents to $7.48 for those who live in Grand Traverse County.

“How do you justify that? I don’t think they can,” Board Chairman Rob Hentschel said in a phone interview Tuesday.

“At some point we either have to accept things as they are, for a good reason, or change them.”

A call to Karl Kovacs, NLCMH CEO, was not returned.

The cost of a CPA analysis is $25,000 to $50,000, County Administrator Nate Alger told commissioners.

NLCMH was formed in 2003, when six counties — Crawford, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford — entered into an agreement to provide mental health services to their residents via a new “public legal entity.”

The enabling agreement states that NLCMH would provide an array of mental health services to residents of the above counties, as mandated by the state, with priority given to those with the most severe mental and behavioral health illnesses, regardless of an individual’s ability to pay.

Part of the agreement calls for NLCMH to submit to an annual audit and provide participating counties with a revenue and expenses statement.

Concerns about how much Grand Traverse County pays compared to other counties, and which responsibilities are covered, are not new.

In 2011 commissioners formed an ad hoc committee but Hentschel, who was a member, said questions about high per-person costs remained largely unanswered.

“We did some data searching,” he said. “We did some fact finding. We had the state hospital close, and patients got shuffled off into the community, but we never found out, this is why we pay more.”

The state hospital closed in 1989.

The county pays NLCMH $682,000 annually for mental health services to county residents and an additional $163,500 for responding to calls for service from the jail.

Hentschel said he thought jail services should be included.

“It’s in the original contract with them,” Hentschel said. “It says right in there, that they’ll take care of jail services.”

A 2009 opinion by Attorney General Mike Cox stated that counties, not community mental health programs, are responsible for providing mental health services to jail inmates.

“That’s a different topic,” Hentschel said, about the opinion. “It was by statute and we have a contract.”

At their regular meeting June 19, 2019, the board passed a resolution directing staff to “obtain a legal opinion regarding the process to modify” the county’s agreement with NLCMH.

“Can we save money? The answer I’ve heard from everyone I’ve asked is, maybe,” Alger said. “I think it is a legitimate question that needs to be answered.”

Then at their September 4, 2019 meeting, the board considered that opinion in a closed session and staff recommended the cost-benefit analysis.

If commissioners decide to change the current agreement, Hentschel said the board has a few options: Renegotiate the current agreement with NLCMH, withdraw from the agreement and form their own authority, or withdraw and partner with other counties.

The meeting will begin Wednesday at 8 a.m. in the Governmental Center, 400 Boardman Ave.

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