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Pennington County Commissioner Ron Buskerud listens to Pennington County Public Defender's Office Director Eric Whitcher explain his budgetary requests during a commission hearing in June.

Parents, law enforcement leaders, mental health professionals, advocates and a recovering alcoholic were among those who spoke to the Pennington County Commission Tuesday, all with the same message: Please help.

Mental health services in western South Dakota are lacking, they said. And they think pursuing a grant to bring in a consultant, collect data, and identify needs and solutions is a good place to start. 

Ultimately, the majority of Pennington County commissioners agreed, reversing course on a previous decision regarding that grant proposal.

During their regular meeting, commissioners voted 3-2 to authorize Pennington County Health and Human Services Director Barry Tice to submit a proposal to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. If approved by the Helmsley Charitable Trust, it would fund a study of mental health needs in the region, including an assessment of strengths, needs and access to services.

Once submitted, it is up to the Helmsley Charitable Trust to approve the proposal. If approved, the trust will fund the study, which is expected to cost about $118,000 and will likely take nine to 12 months.

The original proposal deadline was Aug. 13, but Tice said the Helmsley trust granted an extension until Sept. 4. 

Tuesday's decision was a reversal of the county's 3-2 vote during its last meeting to deny the motion. The renewed discussion was led by a change of heart from Commissioner Ron Buskerud, who requested to add the item to this week's regular meeting agenda.

After a brief quibble between Ferebee and Jay Alderman with the state's attorney's office about Robert's Rules of Order and the proper way to reconsider the matter, commissioners spent roughly an hour discussing the issue and hearing public testimony. 

The second time around, Buskerud, Commission chairman Lloyd LaCroix and Commissioner Deb Hadcock voted to allow Tice to submit the proposal. Commissioners George Ferebee and Mark DiSanto voted against.

Buskerud, along with commissioners Ferebee and DiSanto, had voted against the proposal on Aug. 7. It's not that they don't care about mental health services west of the Missouri River, they said. It's not that they don't think there's a problem. But they don't feel the burden to provide those services should fall on Pennington County. 

"I don't think anybody in his right mind doesn't believe we need a physical facility geographically someplace in western South Dakota. That’s not the issue," Ferebee said Tuesday. 

During the previous meeting, one of Buskerud's chief concerns was that a study could lead to expensive recommendations for new facilities and programs — with the county on the hook for the bill.

"That's what I always feared, and that's why I voted no," Buskerud said Tuesday. "I don't think this is a Pennington County project. It is a state of South Dakota project."

Since then, Buskerud said he has been assured that the proposal is "not a plan of action" for Pennington County to fund new facilities on its own. He also said he thinks the study will provide valuable data to show the Legislature.

Ferebee argued that if the study takes nine to 12 months, state legislators will use it as a reason to keep delaying action.

"Let’s not give them another excuse to wait another year. What the hell do we need another study for? We know there's a problem out there," he said. "It's a state problem. Not a county problem. We’re part of the state. Let the state take on the role that they’re supposed to take on."

But for the roughly 15 people who attended the meeting in support of the grant proposal, the county has its own role to play.

Struggling through tears, Katy Urban told the commission what it's like in Rapid City to find treatment for acute mental health issues: Frightening. Exasperating. And far more difficult than it should be. 

Last fall, her teenage daughter attempted suicide. What followed next was "a series of hospitalizations," then a psychiatrist's recommendation of inpatient treatment. 

Brief stays at Regional West and outpatient counseling didn't help. Her daughter's inpatient options were in Spearfish, which had a three-month wait period, or facilities on the eastern side of the state. 

Urban's research said that families need to be involved in a patient's treatment for the best chance at success. But how could she be involved from hundreds of miles away? 

"I advocated for my daughter, I sought help, I did what everyone told me to do, and what I found is that there are simply not enough resources in our community," she said.

Eventually, Urban said they chose a treatment center in Colorado. 

"I can't remember anything more painful than leaving my 13-year-old in an unfamiliar place," she said. 

Another parent, Cher Daniel, told a similar story. Her child attempted suicide, and needed inpatient treatment. There was no place available in Rapid City.  

And it's not just inpatient facilities, Urban said. Mental health professionals can be hard to access. Her daughter has been on a therapist's wait list since February. 

"This is my home. I want to stay here. And I want to live in a place that invests in their community, whether that is in their infrastructure, our schools or our most vulnerable members of our society," she said. 

Professionally, Urban is the communications relations manager for Rapid City Area Schools. In the last year, she said six students have died by suicide. Hundreds more have attempted, or threatened to hurt themselves.

"If that doesn't tell you that we as a community need to do something now, I don’t know what will," she said. 

Allowing the mental health grant proposal to move forward is a step in the right direction, Urban said. 

"Any decision to expand mental health services in western South Dakota will likely need to be backed by hard data — data that could be collected through this study," she said.

Several members of the West River Behavioral Health Alliance also spoke, including Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom.

In separate remarks, Jegeris and Thom each said the criminal justice system is too frequently used as the primary way to provide mental health help to people in Rapid City and Pennington County. That approach is "fundamentally flawed," Jegeris said. 

"It's not as easy as saying 'the state take it' or ‘the county take it,'" Jegeris said. "It’s got to be the state and the county and the city and the feds and the community and our hospital workers. We've got to work together."

Thom agreed, noting that the state has "taken a couple bites of the apple," referencing a mental health task force and summer study session. But, he said, "this isn't just the responsibility of the state." 

"This issue is larger than any one of us," he said, referencing state, county, city, tribal and federal entities. "So it's going to take all of us to try and solve it."

Others who spoke included Al Scovel, a Rapid City attorney, former state legislator and prominent advocate for a mental health facility West River; Rapid City psychiatrist Stephen Manlove, and Dr. Mark Harlow, both members of the alliance; Dr. Kari Scovel, a Rapid City mental health professional and public education coordinator for the South Dakota Psychological Association; and other advocates. 

In other business, the county:

  • Opened sealed bids for the Pennington County Jail expansion and remodel project. The county received bids from three entities: One from Dean Kurtz Construction, with a base bid of $7,032,000; from R.C.S. Construction with a base bid of $7,440,000; and from Scull Construction Services with a base bid of $6,998,000. Mike Kuhl, Pennington County construction project manager, said the design team and building committee will go through the bids, and bring a recommendation for approval to the commission's Sept. 4 meeting. 
  • Approved a 2017 financial and compliance audit exit report from the state Department of Legislative Audit, which found no major issues. 
  • Recognized more than 100 volunteers from the sheriff's office. 

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Contact Candy DenOuden at candy.denouden@rapidcityjournal.com

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