One year later, little progress on expanding COMCARE Crisis Center

Sedgwick County is waiting to hear how the state will spend its COVID recovery dollars before it expands the center.

by Celia Hack / KMUW

WICHITA, Kan. (KMUW) — Nearly one year after Sedgwick County approved a $15 million expansion of COMCARE’s Crisis Center, little progress has been made.

Last year’s budget included money to build a new and larger crisis center because of a growing need in the community. The center provides 24/7 services for those in mental health crises.

The new center would also serve as a social services hub for behavioral health and substance abuse needs, according to a report issued by the county’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition. This could include safety net clinics, emergency shelter and job training.

But one year later, a location hasn’t even been chosen for the new building — much less ground broken.

“It’s important to understand that we can’t wait any longer to help the folks that are shooting up in essentially the backyard of my house because of its location to North Broadway,” said County Commissioner Lacey Cruse. “People are really hurting in this community.”

The county is waiting to hear how the state will invest its $721 million in COVID recovery funds. Local universities applied for money for a new medical and educational campus that, if funded, could be coordinated with the expanded crisis center.

The state initially planned to release spending recommendations for the recovery funds in late April. But that deadline has come and gone.

“We’re in a waiting game right now,” Cruse said.

County waiting on funding for proposed health sciences campus

The major project Sedgwick County is waiting on is the proposed Kansas Health Sciences Education Center — preliminarily called the Wichita Biomedical campus. The campus is a partnership between Wichita State University, WSU Tech, the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita and the KU School of Pharmacy in Wichita. It aims to consolidate health-related education, research and health care.

The new center could help establish a pipeline of counselors and therapists for COMCARE, County Commissioner David Dennis said. That’s why he wants to co-locate it next to the county’s expanded crisis center.

“With 200 vacant positions in COMCARE, that is the priority now,” Dennis wrote in an email to KMUW. “We couldn’t fill a new facility if we built it.”

The universities who are partnering to build the education center applied for $60 million in state COVID recovery funds. Preliminary documents place the campus downtown. This means the crisis center would also be downtown if the two are co-located.

The county’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse coalition wants to set up a social services hub in Wichita, with the crisis center as its anchor. Misty Bruckner, a staff member for the coalition, said it’s also waiting for funding decisions about the biomedical campus to move forward.

“That’s really the first domino to make other decisions,” Bruckner wrote in an email to KMUW.

Sedgwick County applied for $24 million in COVID recovery funds for the crisis center expansion and $40 million for a new regional mental health hospital in south-central Kansas. Funding decisions about the hospital could also impact the plan to expand the crisis center, Dennis wrote.

But funding is competitive. The state task force distributing the dollars received more than 800 proposals that amount to 17 times the total available funding, according to The Kansas Reflector.

When will they decide?

The state committee dedicated to disbursing the COVID recovery funds, known as SPARK funds, has not made any public spending recommendations — despite the fact that it initially planned to release them in April.

Ethan Belshe, director of public affairs with the governor’s Office of Recovery, said that the committee overseeing SPARK funds is currently working to schedule a meeting to discuss the spending recommendations.

In the 2022 budget, the county pointed out the consequences of delaying or not completing the crisis center expansion. Doing so could increase strain on the Sedgwick County jail, where many people with behavioral health needs end up without proper care, according to the budget. The jail is critically understaffed, according to the Sedgwick County Sheriff.

Cruse said that slowing the COVID recovery funding distribution process down will ultimately hurt Sedgwick County and residents who need behavioral health care.

“We see that during an election year, things get slowed down until after the election, which is a horrible way to care for folks,” Cruse said. “… It’s time to make a decision, put a shovel in the dirt and get the ball rolling.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW, Kansas News Service