Houston/ Politics & Govt
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Published on May 23, 2024
Harris County's Non-Violent 911 Response Program Halted Amid Payment Dispute and Allegations of Contractor Double-BillingSource: Google Street View

A spat within the Harris County Commissioners Court has put the brakes on an innovative program intended to handle non-violent 911 calls with mental health professionals instead of police. The program known as the Holistic Assistance Response Team, or HART, was abruptly paused Wednesday following a contentious split over continuing payments to the contractor in charge, DEMA Consulting & Management.

The heart of the debate is a $270,000 invoice for services rendered in the last two months, which the county has balked to settle amidst allegations of the contractor double-billing and under-investigation financial practices. This tussle might unintentionally derail a program that since its 2022 inception, has diverted over 11,000 calls from law enforcement responses, aiming to better serve individuals in crisis while allowing officers to focus on more severe crimes.

Split on whether to release the funds to DEMA, the Commissioners Court failed to achieve the majority vote needed to approve the payment. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis supported the motion, while Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey voted against it; Precinct 2 and Precinct 4 Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Lesley Briones abstained from the vote. Without the necessary financial support, DEMA expressed that they would not be capable to make payroll or continue operations, as the Houston Chronicle reported.

Although the county's First Assistant County Auditor Leslie Wilks Garcia indicated during the meeting that the $270,000 bill had been verified and was in line with contractual terms, she did confirm the audit uncovered double-billing incidents. Wilks Garcia suggested that this could be due to employees splitting their time between servicing both Sonoma County and Harris County, which wouldn't necessarily be a breach of the Harris County contract. However, the audit has yet to be finalized, leaving room for further analysis to correctly and fully ascertain the legitimacy of DEMA's billing.

Harris County Public Health Director Barbie Robinson warned commissioners that failing to pay DEMA could "de facto end the program." Commissioner Rodney Ellis conveyed a similar sentiment in a statement, emphasizing the essential need for HART "As our community grapples with overcrowding in our jails and as residents’ mental and physical health suffers in the face of disasters, we need HART more than ever," according to the press release covered by the Houston Chronicle.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed that the Harris Center for Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, which oversees a similar program for the Houston Police Department, could potentially take over the HART program. Still, this suggestion was unable to be immediately explored due to meeting procedural rules, as per a statement given to Houston Landing.

As for the broader implications of social response to mental health crises, Nikki Luellen, a policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, remarked on the essential nature of such programs, emphasizing that “Police cannot be the answer to every kind of societal issue. They are not mental health experts, or addiction specialists, or housing coordinators. They do a poor job addressing these needs and can cause more harm than good,” as reported by Houston Landing