Behavioral Health Solutions Center

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other city officials unveiled the new Behavioral Health Solutions Center on Thursday, touting the unique facility as a way to keep people in crisis out of jails.

In a split vote, Denver City Council approved Monday a contract amendment with the Mental Health Center of Denver, doing business as WellPower, to pay an additional $3.7 million for short-term crisis stabilization and transitional sheltering at the Behavioral Health Solutions Center.

This extends the contract through the end of 2022 with an adjusted total of $8.25 million.

The Solutions Center near West Colfax Avenue offers services for those experiencing a behavioral health crisis and may also be experiencing homelessness.

Council member Deborah Ortega called out the resolution for a vote, expressing her concern over “exorbitant salaries” paid to the CEO of the nonprofit organization. She said since the council approves these contracts, it should address standardization of practices since some organizations charge higher rates for similar services.

“This particular organization bills at a much higher rate than all the other behavioral health organizations do, and to not have some consistency in how those charges are applied is very concerning to me,” Ortega said at Monday’s meeting. “So I'm going to be voting no on this contract tonight.”

Councilmembers Kevin Flynn and Candi CdeBaca joined Ortega in dissent. Flynn told The Denver Gazette he was persuaded by Ortega’s remarks to join her, and CdeBaca has previously voiced her opposition to unfair labor practices in the organization.

In February of last year, CdeBaca joined a group of MHCD employees who formed a bargaining committee supported by the Service Employees International Union Local 105 as they sought for improved wages.

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"I fundamentally do not support the gross pay inequity in their organization, but I absolutely support MHCD's mission,” CdeBaca said in an email. “I wish there was a better way to hold them accountable, given that they are one of the largest nonprofit contractors for the city and are providing a service that DEMANDS the highest-quality, most equitable work environment."

Peggy Kozal, chair of the WellPower board of directors, said in a statement that it’s “disappointing” to see misconceptions about the nonprofits finances circulating. She said the organization implemented a minimum salary for all full-time staff of $50,000 a year in December 2021 and made “immediate adjustments” bringing average pay for each job to the 60th percentile of market rate across healthcare.

Kozal also said the board of directors work with an independent consultant to analyze its executive compensation and it has “consistently been found to be fair, reasonable and comparable to similar-size and scope healthcare providers across the country.”

According to WellPower’s 990 tax documents, President and CEO Carl Clark’s reportable compensation from the organization in 2021 was $546,544. His compensation from 2020 totaled $798,483, which included bonus and incentive compensation of $331,585. Kozal said the CEO’s compensation ranges each year depending on a variety of factors, and that WellPower’s billing rates are reasonable considering the range of services it provides.

“If the services we provided were equivalent to those offered by other nonprofits, our billing rate would be equivalent as well; however, WellPower provides a much more comprehensive range of complex services, many of which lose money on their own, which is reflected in our operating cost,” Kozal said in the statement.

Council President Jamie Torres noted at the council meeting that the council previously unanimously supported the creation of the Solutions Center as well as the decision to have MHCD run it.