A Q&A with Washtenaw County Commissioner Andy LaBarre
In 2017, Washtenaw County Commissioner Andy LaBarre was instrumental in the development and passage of the county's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, which currently provides about $16 million per year. Thirty-eight percent of the millage revenue is allocated to the Washtenaw County Community Mental Health Department, 38 percent is allocated to the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, and the remaining 24 percent is allocated to county jurisdictions that maintain their own police force.
LaBarre was elected to the Washtenaw County Commission in 2012, and represents District 7, located in the eastern half of Ann Arbor. He works at the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti (A2Y) Regional Chamber and previously served on the staff of U.S. Senator Carl Levin (2004) and U.S. Congressman John D. Dingell (2005-2011). We checked in with Andy to learn a little bit more about how the millage came to be, why it’s important, and what’s next...
Q. How did the idea for a combined mental health and public safety millage originate?
LaBarre: Over the last several years there was the growing realization that the human services the county was responsible for needed a dedicated source of funding, and we felt that mental health and public safety were intertwined. In early 2017 we really started to see that the issues of public safety and mental health were tied together through detailed data that showed how connected the two populations were.
Q. Were there existing solutions to address those connected populations?
It’s one of those issues where it was clear that there wasn’t one office in Washtenaw County that did everything. It varied by jurisdiction. And so if you were going to fund public safety (in connection with mental health), you would have to take into account the disparate nature of how various jurisdictions pay for--and fund--that service. So we put together draft ballot language in the Spring of 2017 that split one millage three ways.
Q. What were the challenges in communicating the importance of the millage proposal?
We knew it was a better use of public dollars to treat mental health on the front end, but we would have to make the case for why it was needed and spell out exactly what was going to be done with the funding. A lot of folks supported the concept, but it was a complicated ask.
Q. In your view, what was the key to the successful passage of the proposal and the support it received from voters across Washtenaw County?
We had a great team of committed folks who worked really hard and did a tremendous job of communicating with different constituencies throughout Washtenaw County. People embraced the principled pragmatism, and what I think ended up happening is the population as a whole took a look at the proposal and said “I may not agree with all of this. but we need it.”
Q. A little less than one year in, what do you see as the next challenges for the community of public safety and mental health service providers, as well as the system that is being supported by this initiative?
We have great leadership from Washtenaw County's Community Mental Health Director Trish Cortes and Sheriff Jerry Clayton in gathering data and communicating outcomes, and we’re already making improvements in the system that we can see with verified data. Now we have to marshal that data and continue telling the story of success or progress in an understandable way.
The challenge will also be explaining to folks that the system is still underfunded by the state – though there is some progress with Governor Whitmer. But we’re still part of a bigger system that needs the right resources.
Q. Final thoughts?
Washtenaw County’s experience with the Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage is a great example of a community working together to identify a problem, develop solutions, apply those solutions, and communicate outcomes. When it comes to human services and public safety, this is the most impactful millage we have passed, and the most substantial thing I have done as a County Commissioner.