Friday is the last day Bill Wasson reports to work after a nearly 34-year run in McLean County government, where he spent the last eight as its top administrator.
Those who have worked with Wasson credit him for guiding McLean County through tough financial times while helping to launch county government into the mental health business to address gaps in care.
Wasson took over county administration in 2011 after serving two years as the assistant county administrator under Terry Lindberg.
Wasson's signature initiative has been behavioral health, triggered in part by a rising and costly jail population.
Wasson helped shepherd the recently formed Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and he started crunching the numbers.
“First we needed to get the data and really understand it,” Wasson said. “You know I’m a data wonk - unfortunately or fortunately, and we really felt like we needed to have the data to understand our issues prescriptively,” Wasson said.
In 2016, the county joined the Data Driven Justice Initiative, an Obama administration effort to curtail the mass incarceration of low-level, non-violent offenders. County Board Chairman John McIntyre said that set the county on the path to reducing costs of incarceration while also connecting people to the help they need.
“He really thought the wave of the future is measuring outcomes, by getting as much measurable data as you can get, especially in the behavioral health field, so that when you do something you aren’t wasting money,” McIntyre said.
The studies show a small percentage of the jail population are what the industry calls frequent utilizers, those who are constantly coming in-and-out-and-back-in the criminal justice system. Many of them have serious mental health problems. The thinking goes, divert these frequent users to other programs in the short term, and in the long term you'll help them break the cycle of incarceration.
The county recently put that in place through its new FUSE program, which stands for Frequent Utilizers Systems Engagement. It's one of several behavioral health programs the county has directed.
McLean County Behavioral Health Coordinating Council Supervisor Trisha Malott said the county plans to have FUSE running by the end of June.
McIntyre said Wasson has guided these efforts with the appropriate level of patience.
“We didn’t always agree on these things, but he convinced me the way to do this was methodically go through and be sure that what we got and the facts and the numbers we’ve gotten were actual true facts and not just somebody’s ideas subjectively about what we could get done,” McIntyre said.
The county is also opening a mental health triage center and tele-psychiatry services to help fill a gap in psychiatric services. This came after the Center for Human Services announced in December it would no longer accept new clients.
Malott said the triage center should be staffed by mid-July. She said the county is still working with contractor Genoa Healthcare about finding a psychiatrist who provides “the best fit” and would work with McLean County clients two days per week.
The county is using money from a sales tax increase to pay for the mental health programs.
The highest-profile component to the county's behavioral health initiative is the $40 million jail expansion. It nearly doubles the county's inmate capacity, which Sheriff Jon Sandage said is to accommodate future growth, but its primary focus is to provide better care for mentally ill inmates. In the past, they were often housed in the booking area to allow for direct supervision. The new part of the jail includes a special needs pod, which has "softer" features that are intended to provide a calming effect on inmates.
Sandage gives Wasson much of the credit for helping the new jail become reality.
“Bill’s been very instrumental, he’s definitely a forward thinker,” Sandage said. “There’s no doubt up until his last day he’ll be continuing to make sure that the wants and the needs of mental health population we have here in McLean County are being met.”
Sandage also credits Wasson for his collaborative efforts, such as enlisting the help of Illinois State University and others to help the county come up with solutions.
“Bill’s been very good about realizing that we have resources locally that can assist us, whether it be the Stevenson Center at ISU or other local agencies that we could partner with to accomplish our mission,” Sandage said.
Frank Beck, associate professor of sociology at ISU's Stevenson Center, recently told the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council the county's efforts to reduce the jail population were working, as jail bookings last year dropped to a 17-year low.
County Board member Susan Schafer chairs the county's health committee. She said she never imagined the county would become so heavily involved in mental health when she joined the board nearly a decade ago. She says Wasson has been a visionary for helping to craft an initiative that's been recognized nationally, but also has the attention to detail that promotes efficiency.
“He’s very visionary on some of the things he could see coming and where some of the needs are, having been involved at the level he’s been involved at for a number of years,” Schafer said.
George Gordon, whose been on the McLean County Board since 1996, was on the search committee that helped hire Wasson as administrator.
As one member of a 20-person board, Gordon understands the administrator's challenge of working for 20 bosses, who sometimes can have 20 different agendas.
“Among the 13 Republicans, there is not unanimity on anything, maybe on the time of day, same as the seven Democrats,” Gordon quipped. “But in terms of us (County Board members), there’s some resemblance to trying to herd cats.”
Gordon worked with Wasson's two predecessors, John Zeunik and Terry Lindberg. While Gordon said each brought their own skills, he noted Wasson's legacy will be helping the county maintain cost-effective county services in the post-recession era.
“Bill I think has had probably more challenges in some ways then either John or Terry (had) because the budget constraints have been more persistent,” Gordon said.
Gordon credited Wasson for his ability to negotiate with the county officeholders and vendors to optimize the county's limited funds.
The county has continually shied away from raising taxes even when growth has been minimal.
Gordon said the next administrator could face even more fiscal challenges. He cited as examples the need to upgrade or replace the county's aging electronic court records system and the need to cover additional costs associated with the county's problem-solving courts. The county has three: drug court, recovery court and the new veterans court.
“There’s some things we need to update that are under some consideration now," Gordon said. "I would not want to be county administrator in the next four of five years because it’s going to be difficult."
The one will who take over as county administrator is Camille Rodriguez, the current county health department director.
“My advice for Ms. Rodriguez is to trust her intuition, utilize our true believers within the organization and work actively and communicate actively with our board members so they can make the best decisions possible,” Wasson said.
Wasson won't say what he plans to do next, but he said he feels the county's behavioral health initiatives are far enough along that this is a good time to hand over the reins.
“A lot of things we are seeing a little bit of either closure on projects or the point where there’s a foundation in place that gives me comfort to say it’s the right time,” Wasson said.
Wasson also suggested Rodriguez be prepared for more uncertainty from Springfield. He said even as he exits, he'll be watching to make sure the state legislature doesn't erode the authority of the County Board and if it comes up with revenue enhancements, such as a progressive income tax, that it shares that money with local governments.
McLean County recently honored Wasson's service by naming a campground road at Comlara Park "Wasson Way." Wasson served as the county's Parks and Recreation Director for 22 years.
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