Cortland County Committee votes against funding for mental health services in schools

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A resolution that would provide $100,000 of additional staffing support for behavioral youth health treatment in Cortland County schools was voted down, 1-7, at Tuesday’s Finance and Administration Legislature committee.

The funding would have come from an unappropriated fund balance account in the proposed 2023 budget, which legislators will vote on in November, and would aid Family Counseling Services to provide mental health support systems at schools across Cortland County. 

Some legislators voted against the measure, citing an unwillingness to spend $100,000 on the service.

“I am against this. I think our county spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on mental health and we are very generous with that in our county,” said Legislator Linda Jones (R-LD-9). “I also think that schools do have mental health professionals. The county's business is not to go into the schools. That's the school budget, not the county budget. Our county has always been very giving in all areas, whether it's Office of the Aging, or Mental Health Department, or helping our municipalities directly.

Legislator Sandra Price (D-LD-14), the only legislator to vote in favor of the measure, said that while there are psychologists at schools, the support the $100,000 would bring to schools would come in the way of direct mental health services.

“The schools still have psychologists and they do a very good job doing testing and putting out fires,” she said. “But the mental health concerns in all of our schools are an epidemic, even at the elementary level. School psychologists tend to recommend things that relate to education and they don't do mental health counseling. They do the best that they can if somebody comes in and is in trouble.”

Despite their efforts, Price said, school psychologists are not equipped nor properly staffed to handle the demand of mental health needs at county schools.

“This is a direct service,” she added. “That’s what I feel is of utmost importance, so that we reach the students.”

Jones said she was concerned about the timing of the request.

“We just passed the tentative budget and less than a month later we're adding $100,000 for a new service,” she said. “Once you do add a new service, try and take that away in a year and a half.”

Although the proposed budget was filed and received earlier this month, legislators will still have to vote for a finalized version in November.

County Administrator Rob Corpora said the legislature can pass a specific resolution that targets the expanded Family Counseling Services funding as a 2023 tentative budget amendment and follow that same pattern for other incoming expenditures not planned for. 

Otherwise, Corpora said, the county could package all future expenditures to be included in the budget and combine them all into one resolution.

The funds for this particular expenditure, he said, would come from unappropriated fund balance.

Other legislators took issue with the lack of state support when it comes to direct services at schools.

“I have to understand this a little clearer,” said Legislator Richard Stock (D-LD-6). “It looks like we would be setting a precedent that we are going to start funding the school on things that the state is supposed to be doing.”

Legislature Clerk Savannah Hempstead explained why the state and other counties tend to not fund direct programs like the one requested by Family Counseling Services.

“In doing research and talking to the director of community services at the county mental health department, it has come to my attention that the New York State Office of Mental Health (NYSOMH) can provide services to the school through clinics,” she said. “If there are clinics added into the school, those clinics, just like any other mental health facility, should be self-sustaining. That's why funding is not usually ever given to those through the State Education Department (NYSED).”

The way a clinic would sustain itself, she added, is through medical billing. 

“That's why other counties don't give money for this purpose, and that's why the state does not,” Hempstead said.

Legislature Chair Kevin Fitch (R-LD-8) said grant money for such projects typically goes to urban areas. Fitch proposed the county could fund the project for next year and evaluate the results.

“I'm a firm believer that this shouldn't be the burden of the county,” he said. “But on the other hand, we can talk about laws, grants, diplomacy, but the problem is that the psychologists at schools are not capable of dealing with something.”