by ZACH KAYSER
The Alternative Response Team (ART) transformed from concept into contract Monday, when the Winona City Council approved the formal agreement that would form the basis for teams of mental health professionals responding alongside — and possibly in lieu of — police officers.
Council members unanimously approved the three-year contract between Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center (HVMHC) and the city. HVMHC will be paid just under $175,000 in 2021 for the program, which for now consists of two mental health professionals. Officials earlier said the first teams are planned to deploy in July, and that initially the ART would be accompanied by police.
Both City Manager Steve Sarvi and Winona Police Department Chief Tom Williams emphasized the framework for the program would be dynamic.
The ART program contract was the culmination of five years of work, including the implementation of the earlier Community Outreach Officer program at the WPD, Sarvi said. Sarvi said the contract was intentionally vague when it came to the duties of the ART, in order to provide the space for the program to evolve. “Our research has shown that in every community that has adopted a model like this, two things have happened over time,” he said. “The first is, the program is still operational and being offered. Nearly every community that has started an alternative response option, it’s still going. Secondly, the program needs to be adaptable to the needs of the community. We don’t want to start with a rigid structure of services, we need to trust in this process and let it develop over time.”
Williams acknowledged there were concerns among the public that the police were still heavily involved with the program. Earlier in the development of ART, some proponents had wanted it as an alternative to 911, so that Winona residents could seek help for a crisis without involving the police. However, Williams said it was necessary for police to be involved at the outset.
“Where does everybody call when they need assistance?” Williams said. “They call the Law Enforcement Center.”
The safety of both the call subject and the responders, cops and ART alike, was paramount, he said. Williams anticipated the ART concept would evolve to the point where ART could make the decision on whether WPD would assist them.
City council members celebrated the contract before them, although council member Steve Young was still skeptical. “I’m a fiscal conservative, that’s no secret,” Young said. “So I want a return on the dollar. I want staff to understand that I want updates on this, I want to know how this is working.”
Christy Ferrington, the HVMHC staffer who would oversee the program, guaranteed the City Council that HVMHC would collect a great deal of data on ART to report back to the council.
Mayor Scott Sherman said the program made him feel positive emotions, a reaction he said he had in common with other stakeholders. “I feel —I don’t just think, I feel good— about this project,” he said.
Eileen Moeller spoke as one of the earliest originators of the concept, and a participant in talks that included city officials, police and mental health professionals. “I think that they came to a really great result,” she said.