Fresh from layoffs and pay cuts during budget hearings, the Plumas County supervisors were in no mood to grant pay increases to anyone, even if the money would come from state and federal coffers and not the county.
Pat Leslie, the interim mental health director, asked the supervisors to grant pay raises for both mental health and behavioral health therapists. Leslie said that the department’s responsibilities were increasing and she was finding it difficult to attract and retain therapists.
“Mental health professionals are critical to public safety, and a system limiting recruitment and retention can result in poor response or no response to emergency situations,” Leslie wrote in a memo to the board.
Leslie told the supervisors during their Nov. 13 meeting that her department was experiencing a “constant and sustained growth in caseloads,” and with a “lot of significant health care changes coming,” she expected that trend to continue.
During an interview following the meeting, she said that the county historically had an active, open caseload of approximately 300, but now the number is closer to 500. One-third of the clients are children.
She said it is difficult to recruit and retain therapists because the pay scale in Plumas County is low, while employees are asked to be on call around the clock. The county currently has nine therapists on staff.
Supervisor Sherrie Thrall said that she had researched the issue and recent recruitment efforts drew 14 qualified applicants for one position and 18 for another.
“A lot of people are interested until they can talk about the money,” Leslie said, and added that three therapists left in their first year because of salary issues. And of the 14 applicants that Thrall referred to, Leslie said, “Only four came for an interview.”
She said the department invests time and money in training, and then the individuals leave.
“It’s the same situation in the sheriff’s department,” Thrall responded. “It’s something that rural counties deal with.”
Thrall advocated that the department use funds to hire more therapists, rather than raise the salaries of existing therapists.
She said hiring more therapists would improve the working conditions of the current employees because they would not have as much on-call time.
Leslie said that she had hoped to be able to do both with the goal of improving retention.
Board Chairman Robert Meacher was sympathetic to Leslie’s plight, but said that the board had “a sour taste of whacking everybody’s pay in the budget process.” He suggested that the request be reviewed mid-fiscal year.
Supervisor Jon Kennedy agreed with Thrall and thought it was advisable to hire more therapists, which would improve the employees’ work lives.
Board observer Larry Douglas spoke out on behalf of Leslie’s request and said, “We have to compete; we have to give her the leeway.”
The board voted 4-to-1 to deny Leslie’s request for raises and tasked the department instead with “looking to increase the number of therapists to reduce on-call for staff and improve services to the public.”
Simpson voted “no” explaining that it didn’t include an opportunity for Leslie to return mid-year. “I encourage you to come back,” Simpson told Leslie.
Following the meeting, when asked if she would return, Leslie said that she “planned to keep the conversation moving forward.”
Waiting for therapy
With nine therapists and a caseload of 500, can the department respond to everyone who needs services?
“Because we serve the entire county, one area can be more pressed,” Leslie said. Currently the pressure is on the eastern end of the county, where there is a wait list for services.
Clients are seen at the department’s main office at the courthouse annex in Quincy, and also at satellite offices in each of the communities. Additionally, therapists go to school sites to work with children and they make home visits.
A mental health therapist is charged with working with individuals with mental illness, while a behavioral therapist works with those who also have substance abuse issues.
“Some of the population is dual-diagnosed,” Leslie said.
A new director
The Board of Supervisors is in the process of hiring a new mental health director and interviewed candidates Nov. 13.
Leslie has served as the interim director in the wake of John Sebold’s resignation last May.
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