Funding for mental health services, downtown Columbia's Inner Arbor and resources for the county's foreign-born residents were the main talking points at the Howard County Council's last budget hearing Wednesday.
The hearing was the final opportunity for county residents and organizations to publicly testify for or against funding levels in the fiscal year 2015 budget, proposed by County Executive Ken Ulman last month, before the council takes a vote May 21.
Some who turned out to testify felt the budget didn't do enough to support Healthy Howard, a public health initiative that has helped to coordinate enrollment in the Affordable Care Act and had hoped to add a mental health component this fiscal year.
Eric Masten, Healthy Howard's director for health policy and advocacy, said the organization had requested $275,000 from the county but the current budget only awarded $100,000 for its programs.
The extra money, he said, would have funded a new behavioral health program to connect patients in need of mental health services to the proper care. Additionally, it would have supported the continuation of the group's prenatal program for expectant mothers and re-entry program for prisoners transitioning back into the community.
With less money in the budget, "we will have to make some serious considerations in reassessing what programs we could fund," Healthy Howard Executive Director Christine Hall told the council.
But County Council member Greg Fox, a Republican who represents the western county, said his recollection was that Healthy Howard, which was created in 2008 to offer low-cost health services to county residents, was initially pitched to the council as a temporary program until national health care coverage became available through the Affordable Care Act.
"We've always known that the [Healthy Howard health plan] was supposed to be transitional," Masten said when asked about Fox's comments, but, "We have, I think, been very successfully adapting and changing as an organization to meet the ongoing health care needs of Howard County."
Ann and Donald Klein, a Columbia couple, both testified for more support for mental health care services. The Kleins said they had been disappointed by the county's offerings while coordinating a relative's care.
"Right now, we're in a crisis in terms of human services," Donald Klein said. "What we need are programs; we need implementation."
As part of his proposed budget, Ulman has included funds for mental health programs under the umbrella of other departments and organizations, including money to establish a second full-time Mobile Crisis Team to respond to mental health-related emergency calls; a new police department position to focus exclusively on mental health cases; and a task force to develop a comprehensive behavioral health action plan for the county, which aims to identify and bridge gaps in mental health services.
While Healthy Howard asked the council for more funding, a pair of citizens requested that council members give less funding to the Inner Arbor Trust, the corporation created to develop downtown Columbia's Symphony Woods. Ulman's budget awards $1.5 million to the trust.
"From the beginning, its irrational exuberance has been baffling, to say the least," Columbia resident Norma Rose said of the trust's plans for Symphony Woods, which include dramatic architectural additions, such as a "butterfly" building made of mirrors and glass and used as an art gallery; an outdoor amphitheater called the "chrysalis" and a worm-like, plant-covered tube called the "caterpillar."
"In the months it’s been operating, concern about its plans, its spending and its lack of transparency has escalated," Rose added, urging the council to fund other programs instead.
Philip Press, another Columbia resident, echoed Rose's concerns, calling the Inner Arbor's planning process "a Putin-esque decision without community input."
Also at the hearing were advocates from the county's Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, or FIRN.
FIRN Executive Director Hector Garcia told the council that the group had helped 20,000 immigrants, refugees and other foreign-born individuals in the past year, and continued to see growth in its programs, which include health education, English tutoring for elementary school students, crisis intervention and translating and interpreting.