Harris County Mental Health Program faces uncertain future amid financial concerns

Harris County Commissioners have placed in indefinite limbo a program aimed at lightening the burden on police by delivering mental health services in non-emergency, non-violent scenarios across the community.

Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis joined Harris Judge Lina Hidalgo battling to salvage the non-law enforcement intervention program known as HART - short for Holistic Assistance Response Team.

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"I'm upset on behalf of the people who are not going to get the right law enforcement responses," said Hidalgo.

"I don't know them from Adam, but I just don't want to end the program," said Ellis.

It is a service that may be halted here because the prime contractor, DEMA Consulting & Management, is under heavy scrutiny for potential financial irregularities in Sonoma County, California, where investigators contend DEMA couldn't document 40% of what the company billed.

DEMA has publicly denied negligence.

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It's a troubling development which has triggered both alarm and precaution here in Harris County. 

"I feel really concerned about the potential of paying good money behind bad," said Adrian Garcia, Commissioner Precinct 2.

"I'm deeply invested in the program, but I also deeply invested in being a steward of taxpayer dollars," said Lesley Briones, Commissioner Precinct 4.

When a proposal to pay DEMA's $270,000 bill failed to gain approval, Judge Lina Hidalgo lashed out angrily, accusing Commissioners of enforcing strict standards on a contractor they do not impose on themselves.

"All of these really smart people are okay with having no conflict of interest form, no selection committee for millions and millions of dollars, and they knew that because they were doing it. They don't want to change it even though the auditor recommends it, and now its $270,000, and suddenly we need evidence and witnesses, and we pay attention to everything," said Hidalgo.

The motion to pay DEMA's invoice failed to gain the three votes needed for approval with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey voting against and Garcia and Briones abstaining.

According to Harris County Public Health, HART teams have answered 11,153 calls and delivered services to 6,196 residents since the program's inception in 2022.