‘I want oversight’: County Commissioner requests more information on Crawford County Mental Health Center’s budget

Jordan Meier
Morning Sun

PITTSBURG, Kan. — In late May, what was to be just an annual review of the Crawford County Mental Health Center turned into a conversation about a need for more financial transparency within the county’s departments.  

At their meeting on May 21, commissioners heard from the center’s director Michael Ehling as he presented and reviewed for the commission the activities of the Mental Health Center.  

In his initial presentation, Ehling reviewed a wide range of topics from how the center had handled COVID-19 to what services they provided, even going on to discuss how grants and fundraising were going for the future Addiction Treatment Center the organization is currently in the process of making a reality.  

Following Ehling’s report, however, the conversation took a turn when Commissioner Jeremy Johnson asked for more in-depth information on the Center’s financials, since “that’s what all of the other departments submit to us.”  

Johnson said, “I appreciate the presentation you gave today that outlined some of the services that are in there, but I guess what I want to see for the future is return on investment. Certainly, we see the number of visits, or the number of people impacted, but what are the outcomes that are being hit on. Are we reducing poverty, reducing recidivism into crime, like what are the things beings impacted by the $600,000?”  

Johnson also said that Crawford County has the highest mill levy for mental health centers of any county and pays the fifth-highest dollar amount. Currently, the county government contributes $600,000 to the Crawford County Mental Health Center’s budget.  

“In spite of us having such a large amount that we’re giving to you guys,” Johnson said, “I have still never seen a budget from Mental Health.”  

While Johnson said he had never really seen a full budget and financial report for the Mental Health  Center, he did say the commission did receive some financial documents when the center requested approval of funds from the Elderly Fund earlier this year. Johnson then went on to highlight certain concerns he had with a budget that was submitted.  

He said in looking at the budget given to the commission, it appeared that they had over $300,000 leftover in their budget that they had not designated for anything, labeled “net income.” 

“I have served on nonprofits and governmental boards for like a decade and I’ve never seen that before,” Johnson said. “It makes it look like that money isn’t designated for any specific thing, which again is a little concerning if we’re giving you $600,000 and half of that is not set into a specific fund. Like it looks like a slush fund.”  

Heather Spaur, director of personnel and marketing for the Mental Health Center, explained that the extra money Johnson highlighted was one of the first years the center had made a “profit,” but also emphasizing that any leftover money was reinvested into the center.  

“It’s not profits that we make,” Spaur said. “They’re held and retained earnings; they go towards projects like the Addiction Treatment Center.”  

Following some more back and forth where Johnson questioned the nature of a $1 million “gift” that had just appeared in the center’s budget and suggested that the finances they had presented to the commission make it look like the center could be “double dipping” on funds, Spaur jumped in to defend the center. 

“The amount that you pay us is very important and we very much appreciate it, but we are not running around doing things, we are providing services to people who are very severely mentally ill in this community who cannot go anywhere else. So that’s where your $600,000 is going: to the people that you represent and serve so that they’re not killing themselves and suffering from mental illness,” Spaur said. “So that very much offends me when you say that.”  

Johnson said while he was not meaning to offend anyone, the concerns he shared are ones he has had since day one, going on to say that he’d asked for explanations in the past and had been told essentially “no.”  

“I’ve asked multiple times to see finance sheets to see budgets to get answers to any of this, and have been repeatedly told it’s too complicated, it’ll be too hard for you to understand, it’s too much work, whatever the case is,” Johnson said. “There is no evidence outright here of theft of taxpayer dollars. But given the concerns plus repeated requests to have them answered be denied over and over and over again makes it seem like something unsavory is happening.  

“That’s concerning to me as an elected official because I was elected to this seat to provide oversight.”  

As the heated discussion wrapped up, Johnson said he wished a commissioner had a seat on the Mental Health Governing Board.  

“That is regular practice across the state,” Johnson said. “I think that would be very beneficial for oversight purposes.”  

While Johnson seemed concerned about some of the financial practices of the center, the other two commissioners did not seem as concerned. Following the discussion, Commissioner Tom Moody even said he is happy with the way Mental Health runs and he is proud of the work they have done.  

“I feel like we’re a leader in the state of Kansas in this field,” Moody said.  

Michael Ehling and other Mental Health Center staff, including their attorney, returned to the commission the following week to address the concerns and explain how the mental health center is run.  

“Crawford County Mental Health has come prepared to be fully transparent,” Ehling said.  

Following that presentation, which lasted for an hour and a half, the commissioners including Johnson thanked the officials for returning and for putting effort into addressing the concerns that were raised.  

Jordan Meier is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. She can be reached at jmeier@morningsun.net