Home City This November levy will determine the future of Athens’ women’s shelter

This November levy will determine the future of Athens’ women’s shelter

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Editor’s Note: This story was first published in The Athens NEWS. It ran in print on Monday, Sept. 25.

If a proposed levy up for renewal this November does not pass, organizations such as My Sister’s Place could lose a significant chunk of their funding for addiction and mental-health services.

The levy is being placed on the ballot by the Athens-Hocking-Vinton Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board – commonly known as the 317 Board.

The levy, which has a one-mill tax rate, would last for 10 years before going to voters for renewal.

The 317 Board is a political subdivision under Ohio Revised Code, and was established in 1967 with the responsibility to provide mental-health services to Athens, Hocking and Vinton counties, said 317 Board Executive Director Earl Cecil. It expanded in 1989 to include alcohol and drug services. That expansion came via Senate Bill 317, Cecil said, hence the board’s name.

“Our responsibility is to do needs assessment of services in our three counties and then to contract with private providers such as My Sister’s Place to implement those services,” Cecil said.

“We have the responsibility to procure funding to pay for the services. Therefore, the levy – and then we evaluate the services and it just kind of loops around.”

This levy is one of two from the 317 Board that will appear on the ballot. Both are essentially the same, with the same tax rate and purpose. The board created the second levy after a reduction in funding from the state meant that there were no longer sufficient funds to address the region’s needs, Cecil said.

Each levy brings in anywhere from $1.6 million to $1.7 million per year, Cecil said, and the board uses this money to provide services that Medicaid doesn’t cover.

“Medicaid has become one of the biggest funders of mental-health and addiction services in the state of Ohio,” Cecil said.

“But Medicaid doesn’t pay for everything, and obviously if someone’s not eligible for Medicaid, it doesn’t pay for anything at all.”

To qualify for Medicaid in Ohio, a family of four would have to have a combined income lower than $32,319.

Cecil said that while the levy normally passes in Athens County by a fairly large margin, around 60-40 percent, it typically does not do as well in Hocking and Vinton counties. There, he said, the split is more like 48-52, with the opposition winning.

“We have passed in those counties before, but typically no matter how hard we work, we seem not to pass,” Cecil said. “We get close but we don’t get over the hump.”

The poor favorability in two of the three counties usually does not mean the levy won’t be enacted, though, since the levy’s approval comes from the total vote of the counties, and Athens County has far more people than the other two.

And although this year’s levy actually failed on the ballot the last time it was up for approval in 2007, it passed after being put on the ballot again in the 2008 spring primary election, Cecil said.

Kelly Cooke, executive director of My Sister’s Place, said the Athens-based shelter was the first Ohio domestic-violence program to be licensed as a mental-health facility, and is one of only a few in the state.

Cecil said the organization gets about $216,000 annually from the 317 Board’s levy, or around 30 percent of its total funding.

“Since we’re a licensed mental-health facility, we get funding from the 317 Board,” Cooke said. “That also means we’re able to bill Medicaid, so those two funding sources are very important to us.”

My Sister’s Place is considered a mental-health facility because of its ability to provide “high-quality clinical services” to its residents, Cooke said.

Since it serves victims of crime, My Sister’s Place also receives grant funding through the Office of Criminal Justice Services and the Ohio Attorney General’s office.

“There’s been a big increase in Victims of Crime Act funding in the past few years, and so that money has allowed us to do a lot of one-time repairs on the (shelter) house and updates on the house,” Cooke said.

Besides relying on money from the state, Cooke said donations from the community and local businesses are an important part of My Sister’s Place’s funding.

“It’s what we call unrestricted funds,” Cooke said. “Most of our grant funding goes to something very specific, but community donations allow us to fill in the gaps, where grants don’t cover certain things.”

The shelter housed 48 adults and 30 children in the last fiscal year, Cooke said, with the average stay around 52 days.

“That can be anything from people who come for one night, or people who have to stay here for months,” Cooke said. “It’s really individualized and depends on what they’re working through.”

There were 84 domestic-violence incident charges in Athens County last year, according to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, while Hocking County had 82 charges and Vinton County had 53.

Apart from its well-known shelter program, My Sister’s Place offers other programs, including off-site mental-health counseling; a full-time court advocate who helps people file civil-protection orders and accompanies people through the court process; and the more recent My Sister’s Paws animal shelter, for residents who have dogs and cats that are threatened at home or used as part of abuse.

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