Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Making most of a hollow shell

     Looking back, I must have written 10,000 words about that old building on East Waco's Clifton Street. It was a decrepit nursing home at one time. Then McLennan County converted it into a makeshift juvenile detention center.

     In the '90s it got upgraded and expanded. That meant young detainees would have recreation and classroom opportunities, and wouldn't have to, among other things, relieve themselves in plastic jugs after hours. It was a disgrace.

     Ten years later, the county acknowledged that demand had outstripped the renovated building. It  built a new place where children in trouble could get some counseling and intervention this side of the Texas Youth Commission.

      For years, the old building sat vacant while some of us suggested ways to use it, like providing juvenile drug treatment.

     Then two years ago, good people — and I mean the best — found a use for a hollow shell: establish a triage and respite center for people with psychiatric emergencies.

      Long before this was possible, I had watched these people push the boulder up the hill, straining on behalf of a voiceless constituency. At last, they stood at the top of the hill, sweat-stained but rewarded.

      Now, in a case of mountaintop mining for budget dollars, the state of Texas is threatening to take the ground out from beneath their feet.

      It would happen if Gov. Rick Perry and state budget writers dynamite away 10 percent of spending from the Department of Human Services and subordinates like the Waco-based Heart of Texas Region Mental Health-Mental Retardation.

      Barb Tate, executive director of HOT MHMR, is the very last person from whom you will ever expect hyperbole. So when she uses "devastating" repeatedly to describe the proposed cuts — more than $1 million for her agency over the biennium — believe it.

     The first victim under her watch, she said, likely would be the psychiatric crisis center established in 2008 with a grant from the Legislature and much local collaboration. 

      This would be — yes, devastating, and costly. The on-site respite serves an average of 28 people a day, keeping them out of mental hospitals, and emergency rooms, and jails. Anyone who deals with any of those entities knows how much they cost all of us.

     The other function of the center is to do triage for people brought by police or family when someone is talking suicide or conversing with phantoms. The center handles six to 10 such cases daily. A person might need hospitalization. Or he might  just need to get back on his medication and then into a clean bed, maybe his own.

       The really scary thing about the proposed budget cuts, said Tate, is that in addition to $90 million that would be yanked from community mental health centers like hers, $44 million would be stripped from state hospitals, where beds routinely are at a premium.

       The sad thing about this is that most policymakers, and Texans, simply shrug their shoulders and say nothing else can be done. The economy, you know.

        That rationalization could not be more false.

        Texas is a state of great resources with pitifully little social spine. Its policies are captive of players like the Texas Business Association and the national Citizens for Tax Reform. If Rick Perry is a little less tan than normal when returning from an out-of-state jaunt, understand that he is fresh from another blood ritual with CTR's anti-tax high priest, Grover Norquist. Earning national street cred as an anti-tax crusader has been one of Perry's chief missions as governor.

         We are told that Texas faces a $21 billion budget deficit next biennium. Considering the state of the economy, none should be surprised. But critics have pointed out for years that the state operates with a structural deficit based on a regressive tax system that barely reflects its economy or taps its immense wealth. 

         A few years ago, under the guise of "school finance reform," the state managed to make things worse. Republicans pushed through a one-third property tax cut without sufficient ways to offset it. It was typical blue-sky policy by people who would never plan for a day when skies would turn unforgiving. In agriculture, such foolery is called eating the seed corn.

        We've seen the same thing in Washington. Politicians who borrowed to pay for two wars led us into a near-Depression. Now that the need for federal action at home is great, debt accumulated in the best of times prevents us from meeting crucial needs in bad times.

         In Waco, they did a magnificent job doing something with that hollow shell on Clifton Street. Now they are at the mercy of fiscal stewards who have sculpted a hollow shell of a tax system. If Texas had a social spine, it would finance good deeds that serve people in need and save money in the long run.

          Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


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