Mental health looks for better space
A public hearing at the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors today regarding the sale of the former county attorney’s office and a consideration to identify a local Realtor to handle the sale, turned up surprises for many in attendance.
The board first held an auction in June that was unsuccessful to transfer the building at 117 W. Broadway Ave., out of county ownership to a private buyer.
Options had been discussed since then and a public hearing was set two weeks in advance for today to have the property offered for sale and select a local real estate agent’s name from a hat.
“I’d like to propose moving the county mental health services to that office,” said county Sheriff Gregg Morton. “Sandy’s [Stever, Jefferson County Mental Health Administrator] space is not confidential. I think moving the CPC [Central Point of Contact] to the Broadway office will also provide the storage space needed.
“I walk into her office now, and she could be with a client, and there’s no privacy and we have to be careful about HIPAA,” said Morton. “She should have a separate interview space for consumers.”
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 is a federal law protecting individual’s privacy concerning medical treatments of all types, including mental health.
Supervisor Dick Reed said the county remodeled the former Department of Human Services building for use by the county attorney’s office and had planned to put the property at 117 W. Broadway Ave. back on the tax rolls.
“It’s a dollars and cents issue,” said Reed. “We could find other space here [at the courthouse] for Sandy to interview clients, such as the third floor conference room.”
Supervisor Becky Shcmitz said Stever would need access to her computer during interviews with consumers.
“When I go into Sandy’s office — which is in the basement of the courthouse — I run into consumers that I have dealt with from a law enforcement standpoint, and in my eyes, what’s down in the basement is not working,” said Morton.
Schmitz, who works as a mental health counselor in Mount Pleasant, said it’s about respect for individual consumers as well as keeping records secure.
Stever had said her office, with a staff of herself and one other employee, has 16 metal filing cabinets of records and that is with consolidating records. Her office space is running out of room to keep the records, which by HIPAA law, need to be secure behind locked doors.
Stever said if she and her other employee are both interviewing clients, they can be overheard.
“So what’s happening in the future? Are we going to regions? Will we have more or fewer employees? We shouldn’t be making changes now when we don’t know those answers; it’s putting the cart before the horse,” said Reed.
“But would we want to eliminate a potential remedy [the office at 117 W. Broadway Ave.] without knowing?” said supervisor chairman Lee Dimmitt.
Stever said whether Jefferson County remains a stand-alone region for mental health services or not, the number of staff in her office would not likely change.
“The workload is not decreasing, record keeping is not decreasing,” said Stever. “This is a conversation that should have happened years ago.
“Our office is not sound-proof, not even muffled,” she said. “Clients could be in the waiting area and overhear interviews going on behind a closed door.”
Schmitz said the layout of the former attorney’s office would provide three interview rooms and space for all the records.
“Right now, the building needs some flashing work,” said Reed.
“I have called all the real estate offices in town to let them know what we were planning. A group [of potential buyers] has the building blueprints and is working on drawings,” said Reed.
“This is a total surprise to me.”
Stever asked what other options might be available.
“We could look at moving your office into the assessor’s former space in the basement,” said Reed. “It has more room.”
Stever said she needs two interview rooms to have confidentiality.
“I hadn’t considered moving the mental health services to the former county attorney’s office, but I have had discussions with Sandy about privacy issues in her office,” said Schmitz.
Reed said he wasn’t against the idea, it would be a full board decision.
“There’s no point in choosing a Realtor if we’re not selling the building,” said Reed.
“You’d have about five times the space there than you have now,” he said to Stever.
Dimmitt said having a front and rear entrance could be good safety factor for the staff.
“I agree with Dick, the county doesn’t need to own more property than is needed, but I also understand Sandy’s situation,” said Dimmitt.
Reed said he’d want the office space spruced up if he were moving in. To spruce it up and fix the flashing would cost $50,000 to $60,000.
Assistant County Attorney Pat McAvan pointed out the Broadway office is not handicap accessible, so that would also need to be addressed.
“We need to see if something in the courthouse could be accommodating for the same amount of money,” said Reed. “I really didn’t know this was as much of an issue. I have not said I’m opposed to you moving there. It will have to be a board decision.”
Dimmitt agreed the board shouldn’t get fixated on one solution.
“We want to consider all options,” he said.
The supervisors agreed to close the public hearing and took no further action about selling the property. It can be placed on the agenda for another public hearing in the future.