Bexar County officials are alerting residents of recent moves to improve public health and boost assistance for indigent defendants coping with mental health issues.

Commissioners court on June 7 gave preliminary approval to award $10 million to UT Health San Antonio and The University of Texas at San Antonio toward developing the UT School of Public Health San Antonio.

According to a news release, the $10 million was directed from the county’s $389 million American Rescue Plan Act allocation and will support startup programmatic, operational and educational costs, including renovation of existing spaces at UT Health San Antonio and UTSA.

Officials with UTHSA and UTSA said a student census of nearly 400 is planned within the first five years. A master’s degree in public health will be offered beginning in 2024. A doctorate in public health program also will be developed.

UTHSA officials said the UT System Board of Regents recognize a comprehensive public health approach is needed to address a variety of disparities in key health outcomes around the San Antonio area and across South Texas.

In November, the UT regents voted to authorize UT Health San Antonio and UTSA to develop a new public health school.

UTHSA President Dr. William Henrich said creation of a free-standing, independent school of public health in South Texas has been a shared vision of UTHSA and UTSA leaders for years.

“Formation of The University of Texas School of Public Health San Antonio results from close collaboration between two UT System universities united around a shared mission to establish a research-intensive, community-centric school to improve health outcomes, reduce morbidity and mortality, and educate the next generation of public health professionals for our city and region,” Henrich said in a statement.

UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said his institution is grateful to Bexar County commissioners for their investment and belief in a growing set of regional public health needs.

“Both institutions are deeply committed to building upon our areas of expertise to ensure the new School of Public Health becomes a regional leader in preparing the next generation of public health leaders while creating healthier communities,” Eighmy said.

County Judge Nelson Wolff said the COVID-19 pandemic re-emphasized the importance of public health education and a need for trained professionals to be prepared for large-scale emergencies. San Antonio is the largest city in the U.S. without a school of public health, UTHSA and UTSA officials said.

“Bexar County is primed for a school of public health, and we are pleased that ARPA support will help create it. The pandemic that we have weathered demonstrated the need for public health solutions for our population more clearly than ever before,” Wolff said.

According to UTSA and UTHSA officials, total startup costs for the School of Public Health are budgeted at $40 million, including existing building renovations, programmatic development and recruitment of a nationally renowned dean.

In a separate move, the county announced a new infusion of funds to support the county’s Managed Assigned Counsel Office, whose creation the commissioners court approved in October.

According to a county news release, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission awarded $1.1 million in funds from a mental health defenders improvement grant to support the MACO’s growth over six years.

County representatives said the grant will be used to fund positions for one attorney, one social worker and one case manager toward developing a new mental health division within the MACO. This, in turn, will improve the quality of representation for indigent adult and juvenile defendants with mental health diagnoses and needs, county representatives said.

County officials said the grant will benefit all statutory county and district courts hearing criminal matters punishable by incarceration or juvenile matters in the county.

County Precinct 2 Commissioner Justin Rodriguez said the grant and the MACO office help to raise the level of representation available to all individuals within the local criminal justice system, regardless of those individuals’ financial means or background.

County District Judge Ron Rangel said he is happy one-third of local arrestees undergo a mental health evaluation during the intake process.

“Our society can no longer afford to ignore mental health issues within the criminal justice system. Our goals should always include keeping our community safe, preventing arrestees from reoffending and continuing to work to solve these issues,” Rangel said in a statement.