By Richard Sullins |

The Lee County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to re-allocate $500,000 it had originally reserved for a Dream Center project toward a new approach to an old problem.

To be called the RENEW Lee County Government’s Health and Wellbeing Initiative, the vote split that original $500,000 into two separate pots of money, with $250,000 going to fund reimbursable services provided by nonprofit organizations and the other $250,000 set aside to fund contracted services.

Six people addressed the commissioners during the meeting’s public comments period, but not one of them spoke against the proposal. Even amongst commissioners who sometimes see issues from differing points of view, there was unanimous agreement that this was the right thing to do.

Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives, who has long-championed the need for a more robust approach to county mental health services, made the motion that will create the county’s two-tiered approach in finally getting a handle on an issue that has created havoc among families and neighborhoods in Lee County for decades.

It was a moment that caused Democratic Commissioner Mark Lovick to reflect, saying, “I’m proud of our county for not giving up on folks.”

Republican Bill Carver remembered how Reives had cautioned his fellow commissioners last year to think things through before committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to it, and “look where we are tonight,” he said.

RENEW is an acronym for Resources for Eliminating barriers, creating New beginnings, and providing Education for an enhanced Well-being. Commissioners were quick to point out Monday that the credit for designing RENEW belongs largely to County Manager Lisa Minter and many employees that contributed from their own experience and expertise to create something not just brand new, but that also came from a desire to use their talents to create a system that will not be just another government program.

How it will work

The program will be funded from available dollars in the county’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds. Lee County initially received just under $12 million in federal relief dollars that arrived during both the Trump and Biden administrations, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury is now allowing counties more flexibility in spending down those funds by considering “revenue loss,” or money lost by counties during the recession brought on by COVID-19.

This greater flexibility includes the option to spend down all of the allotment without having a date by which all funds must be spent, and it is from these dollars that the county will fund RENEW over the next few years.

Instead of handing out checks ahead of time in the form of a cash advance to nonprofit organizations that provide mental health services, agencies that qualify would receive reimbursement for services they provide that are found on a checklist approved by the commissioners.

Examples of some of the types of allowable expenses include the actual costs paid to a psychologist or psychiatrist, a licensed mental health counselor, licensed clinical addiction specialist, or a licensed marriage and family therapist; actual costs paid to Central Carolina Community College for job training classes for individuals; actual costs paid to a licensed residential treatment facility; or actual amounts paid for job necessities like steel-toed boots, uniforms, or suits.

Organizations wishing to apply for eligibility to provide these services will be required to certify that they are currently providing the ones that the county will be providing reimbursement for, that they have been in operation for at least a year and have provided proof of their IRS tax-exempt status, indicate that they make use of licensed counselors and treatment professionals, provide a copy of their governance and board members, and detail how they plan to continue these services once county funding runs out.

The details spelled out in the county documentation that will soon be available online make it clear that the Life Springs Dream Center would be eligible to apply for funding on a reimbursement basis, as would any other nonprofit organization that already provides those same services within the county and meets the qualification criteria. The ability to compete for funding on an equal basis was a point of contention among the nonprofit community last fall as soon as Life Springs was initially awarded funding for its Dream Center plan just before Thanksgiving.

Monday’s vote also allows the staff to encourage nonprofit organizations in the community that might be eligible to apply, and to bring a listing of all those who meet the criteria to use the funds to the November 20 commissioners meeting for final approval.

The curtain falls on a dream

The vote also ended an eleven-month drama that began when the commissioners voted 6-1 last November to award the half-million in funding to the Dream Center’s parent organization, the Life Springs Action Team, at a time when that group was itself in the process of being legally established by Life Springs Church on Keller-Andrews Road.

The church’s application to the county had laid out a plan to address human trafficking, substance abuse, and homelessness, but was less clear about how it would use licensed and trained staff to meet its goals, or to track its performance and measure its successes.

The vote was immediately controversial. Although the county had been searching for one or more organizations that could meet its Lee County’s goals for addressing mental health concerns, it didn’t advertise the availability of such a large amount of federal funds for that purpose on its website, through a news release, or in the media.

So, when it approved an allocation to Life Springs in November, other nonprofit groups in Lee County cried foul because they had not been afforded the same opportunity to apply as had been given Life Springs.

But even before a contract could be drafted, the effort ran into trouble. The commissioners learned that the Dream Center did not have the required approval from the IRS to operate as a tax-exempt organization, and the county agreed to hold off on issuing payment until that paperwork arrived.

A second blow that came just after the New Year, however, proved to be far more difficult to manage. On January 9, The Rant learned that the Life Springs pastor designated to lead the Dream Center, Rev. Daniel Owens, had pleaded guilty in September 2021 in a Medicare fraud case in federal district court in Philadelphia.

Owens was sentenced in late January 2023 to a year’s probation and to pay back the federal government nearly $11,000 from which he had personally benefited, along with another $184,000 that his actions had defrauded Medicare recipients out of. And in a video posted to the Center’s Facebook page the following evening, lead pastor Dale Sauls admitted that he had known about Owens’ conviction since it had happened 15 months prior, and that the church’s leadership had not informed its members about it.

Sauls sent a fax to the county the next day, withdrawing the Dream Center’s application and including a statement that it would re-submit its proposal once all the required documentation was in order. But although the IRS did eventually grant the Center’s tax-exempt status, the Center’s plan to re-apply didn’t materialize.

But strangely enough, the genesis of the idea that eventually became RENEW actually came from Sauls, who approached county staff during the spring with an outline of a program that would allow more than one nonprofit that provides mental health services with an opportunity to stretch their resources farther and allow those services to reach larger numbers of those in need.

Help is on the way

The significance of Monday’s vote is underscored by years of inadequate attention and underfunded budgets received by mental health services. That’s true not just in Lee County, but in almost every other county across the state.

As budget after budget was passed, it seemed there was never enough to meet the needs of a hurting population that suffered silently as it waited for relief that never seemed to come.

But the arrival of COVID in 2020 caused concerns about mental health issues to make their way to the front page as substance abuse impacted families along almost every street and frayed nerves brought on by isolation contributed to growing numbers of domestic violence and abuse reports.

As the commissioners discussed the issue from one meeting to the next, there seemed to be few options available. Clinics were over-run, and, of particular importance, there was no place for law enforcement officers to take persons that had been removed from a situation during evening hours because nearby treatment centers did not maintain available staff through the night.

Now, help is on the way. Nonprofit organizations in Lee County that offer help to those needing mental and emotional support will have a chance for those services to be supplemented through the county. Greater numbers of persons in need of help will be able to find it, and the range of services available through nonprofit groups within the county can be expanded.

All because a pastor came forward with a different idea, a county staff gave the extra effort to work out the kinks, and seven commissioners had the foresight to see that this was the solution they had been looking for.

Reives summed it up in just a few words.

“This board has done some good work tonight,” he said.