St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter's proposed 2020 budget would take money from the police department's mental health unit and give it to the fire department.
Carter allocated $500,000 for the police department in 2019 to pay for three new mental health officers and community mental health provider contracts, according to the city's finance department. The 2020 budget, if approved, would move existing contracts to the fire department for a similar mental health co-responder model.
The fire department will implement "new mental health response protocols ... to more appropriately respond to mental health emergencies within a recognized vulnerable population," according to a presentation that interim fire Chief Butch Inks gave at a City Council budget committee meeting Wednesday.
"This is a new addition for us, and it's a work in progress," he said.
Council President Amy Brendmoen called the shift between police and fire a "surprise move" and asked for a full report on the change.
"I have a lot of questions about this," she said. "We're counting paper clips over here, and for some reason there's a quarter-million dollars floating back and forth between departments."
The police department launched its mental health unit in March 2018. Now called the Community Outreach and Stabilization Unit, it has handled 898 cases so far this year, according to police spokesman Steve Linders. The proposed $232,921 cut would have paid for community organizations to hire health care workers to work with the unit, Linders said. The unit will otherwise remain the same, he said.
A fire department spokesman did not respond to requests for comment, and Inks could not be reached for further comment.
Carter's proposed budget includes more than $4 million in cuts across every department, including five sworn police officers. Reductions in the fire department range from eliminating six full-time positions to cutting spending on postage, copy-machine replacement and janitorial services.
Mike Smith, St. Paul Firefighters Local 21 president, said he's concerned about budget cuts, in particular eliminating one of the department's three training positions. Department personnel have questions about the mental health allocation, Smith said, and are waiting to see how the money is used.
"St. Paul fire paramedics have been dealing with mental health patients for years — those are some of the medical calls that we respond to," he said. "I don't know what the extra $250,000 is going to bring."
Like police officers, firefighters and paramedics encounter mental health crises but may not have the tools to respond, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota.
"You can do the wrong thing, and you're basically pouring gasoline on the fire," she said, "so it is really important for any first responder, frankly, to really understand and learn de-escalation techniques."
But Abderholden said she's not sure it makes sense to pull resources from one department and give them to another.
"You don't want to rob from Peter to pay Paul," she said.