Published on Friday, August 9, 2019 in Community

For almost three years, MEC has worked in earnest with Woodlands Behavioral Health Network (WBHN) on the purchase of our 901 E. State Street facility. WBHN approached us with an interest in the building in 2016, after we broke ground on our new Decatur Road headquarters. At the time, Woodlands staff worked out of three leased facilities, and their board and leadership believed consolidating their operations would allow for expansion; better coordination of service delivery; and cost savings in the areas of lease payments, maintenance and upkeep, and utilities and technology infrastructure.

In December 2016, the WBHN board voted and approved an offer of $2.4 million for the purchase of the 901 facility, and immediately began the process of seeking and securing funding approval from the USDA. In good faith, we put significant time and money into improvements to the facility, including re-roofing, improving storm water retention, and sealing public parking areas.

For reasons unknown to us and after three years of good-faith work between WBHN and MEC, Cass County chose to get involved in June. Jeff Carmen, interim Cass County Administrator, and Robert Benjamin, Chair of the Cass County Commissioners, stepped in and began questioning the details of the purchase, despite the fact that an independent appraisal conducted in 2016 supported the offer price. In response, the 12-member WBHN Board took another vote on June 25, re-affirming the purchase agreement by a vote of 8-2 (one board member abstained and one was absent; County Commissioners Mike Grice and Skip Dyes were the two dissenting votes). While we believed this provided the final green light to close the deal by August 1 as required by USDA, County leadership pursued even more conversation with WBHN and forced yet another board vote. On July 3 the board once again reaffirmed the purchase agreement by a vote of 9-2 (one board member was absent and Grice and Dyes were again the dissenting votes). This is all after Grice and Dyes raised no objections at the May 28, 2019 board meeting to support a motion in favor of awarding a $1 million contract for construction renovations at the 901 facility.

What happened in the following days appears to be a gross breach of democratic principles as the Cass County Board of Commissioners took the extreme measure of unanimously voting to terminate WBHN’s authority status, after they had been an independent authority for 22 years. This move obligates the county to a $12 million budget line item by taking on WBHN as a county department. If the County proceeds with the termination, the USDA will withdraw the previously-approved loan.

There is much speculation about the motives of the County Commissioners, but as of now it appears they have single-handedly stopped the sale of our 901 property, despite the fact that two autonomous entities entered into a good-faith purchase agreement. As a result, MEC loses three years of opportunity to have its facility on the market, impacting the electric customers who own the cooperative and its assets. But this is more than just a lost opportunity for MEC. Other losers include:

WBHN and those they serve as they lose opportunities to expand local mental health services and create a more efficient and effective consolidated operation. They also are saddled with significant debt resulting from the architects and other contractors hired to assist with the expected move.

The Village of Cassopolis as they lose significant financial investment to solidify employment while improving a large, highly-visible and centrally-located anchor facility.

Cass County and future economic development efforts as the USDA will be less inclined to loan or grant funds to a community fraught with political instability.

Cass County residents as they collectively take on the $12 million budget of an agency that successfully served the mental health needs of the community as an independent authority for 22 years.

Three years ago MEC made a financial commitment to Cass County by investing in a brand new facility, and the resulting MEC-WBHN agreement represented a win-win for Cass County and its residents. Today, no winners remain and many are left questioning the leadership of their local community. Email your county commissioners to let them know Cass County deserves better.