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The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority has hired Willie Brooks, the current CEO of the Oakland Community Health Network, as its new CEO.

His contract is for three years, at a salary of $265,000 per year. Brooks, 56, has Master's degrees in economics and finance from Walsh College, and a bachelor's degree in psychology from William Tyndale College. He is scheduled to start at the authority March 1. 

Brooks said on Wednesday the challenge in Detroit and Wayne County was too immense not to take on. Brooks went through an interview process that whittled 104 candidates down to him and was expected to take the job in October and then in December but the process wasn't finalized until Wednesday.

"My mind never changed, it's just we weren't able to reach a contract," Brooks said. "Negotiating a contract in public is completely different from negotiating (privately) in the room."

Brooks said he was leaving Oakland County "in good shape." 

"They just moved into a new facility this week," Brooks said. "Financially, they understand what's going on. They have a good staff, good board, and several people who could step in and continue the good work.

On Thursday, the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority is expecting a visit from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services this week to monitor its progress regarding improvements.

In December, the state health department wrote a letter to the authority, announcing that it would visit in January and cited a number of concerns, including its need to hire a "qualified executive director"; "allegations of conflicts of interest" among its board; "less than substantial compliance with an Office of Recipient Rights assessment, and "handling of improper payments and the recoupment process" the authority used.

That January visit will take place Thursday, said Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The visit is triggered by the department's concerns. One of them, the selection of a qualified leader, has been addressed in Brooks' hiring, Sutfin said.

"If the state's coming in, this would be the best time to come in," Brooks said. "Now the state can say 'we have issues here, let's address it.' Or the state can say 'this is just talk, and the issues we thought are not there.' Either way, it gives me the opportunity to come in with problems that have been identified by the state. I'd much rather do that than come in unknowing. It's like buying a car: I'd rather have the inspection before I buy it."

Brooks leaves a mental health system with a budget just north of $300 million for one with a budget of $700 million. He leaves Oakland County for the state's largest system, for a county with high poverty rates, where health outcomes fall behind neighboring Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties in most measures, according to the County Health Rankings.

"I think Detroit-Wayne is the most important piece in the mental health puzzle in Michigan," Brooks said. "They don't have the luxury of bringing someone on board who doesn't understand privatization. They need someone who can come in running. As Detroit goes, the entire system goes." 

The Wayne County Jail is often referred to by county leaders as the largest mental health provider in Michigan. Reaching patients before they commit crimes would be both cheaper and smarter, Brooks said.

"It costs so much more to put someone in jail than to pay for mental health services," Brooks said

He said it costs about $45,000 a year compared to $7,000 to $8,000 a year if the client is treated outside of a jail setting.

"If that person has a serial mental disorder, incarcerating them costs $100,000 a year," Brooks said. 

"Not only is it bad financially, but it's bad humanely, to put someone in jail who could be treated with mental illness," Brooks said. "A good example is someone who is bi-polar. Someone who is bi-polar could easily be in jail for a long period of time, or they could be given counseling and certain medicine and live a very productive life. As a community, we're not doing our job if we don't give these folks the chance to live a life of choice, a life of inclusion."

Board chair Dr. Herbert Smitherman Jr., who is also a vice dean at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, also cited the difficulty of public contract negotiations in the authority's eight-month process of searching for a new leader. Some 129 people applied for the position, and 104 of them were deemed qualified. 

Joy Calloway, CEO of New Center Community Mental Health Services, came close to being hired, until Wayne County Executive Warren Evans halted the process that by citing 'serious concerns' regarding overbilling from New Center. 

Smitherman said Wednesday the authority is stable but does need a permanent CEO. 

"Willie has actually managed a mental health program in Michigan," Smitherman said. 

"We serve the poor, and we care deeply about the population we serve," he said. "We need someone who can navigate the change that's coming," including a push toward privatization of mental health services that practitioners believe will steal dollars from patients. 

"Every time you take a dollar from our system, it hurts our users," Smitherman said. 

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