Massive public opposition to cuts in mental health and veterans services marked the second day of budget hearings undertaken Wednesday by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
The supervisors have been hearing from each department head this week in an effort to close budget shortfalls this year. Among the cuts is the position of a Veteran Services officer who helps veterans apply for any benefits they may be owed.
Two of the offices in Santa Barbara and Lompoc would also be shuttered, and though a third office in Santa Maria would remain open, the volume at that location would increase exponentially. That potential move raised the ire of many in the veteran community, prompting some emotional comment on Wednesday.
As one speaker brazenly pointed out, the county spends more on animal services than it does on its veterans.
Dozens of veterans came out en force, and spanned theaters from the Battle of Normandy to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We deserve better,” veteran Bill Connell scathingly told supervisors.
He called on each of the supervisors to have a VSO in their own districts, for five total — not one, as is being proposed.
Within this year’s budget process, Connell said, “this is the most important decision you’re going to make.”
Last year alone, the county processed 1,542 veteran claims, resulting in $9.1 million in benefits for vets and their families, according to Harry Hagen, treasurer-tax collector and public administrator for the County of Santa Barbara.
Hagen recommended that county supervisors restore funding for the VSO position if possible.
Supervisor Joni Gray asked if volunteers could be brought on to support the services, and Hagen said veterans in work-study programs at local colleges are already used in the offices for administrative work, and being paid with federal dollars.
He said that when veteran services were fully funded, it would take about a week to get an appointment with an officer to help with a claim. Now, he said, that time frame is closer to six weeks.
“With so many vets coming back ... it’s important we look at this issue,” Carbajal said.
Hagen also spoke about ProPay, a program that helps pay the bills of 300 mentally-ill patients who are unable to manage their personal finances. Under the proposed cuts, the program would be eliminated.
“These clients are often the community’s most vulnerable,” Hagen said, adding that closing the program could increase homelessness and the number of people put in conservatorships.
Earlier in the meeting, dozens of people spoke out against mental health cuts.
Initially, the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Serviceswas proposing cuts in homeless services, as well as a reduction in contracted psychiatric beds and costs to its Psychiatric Health Facility, or PHF.
But ADMHS Director Ann Detrick said the cuts could be nixed to homeless services as long as a bigger cut was taken from the PHF monies.
Supervisor Janet Wolf expressed concern about a reduction of psychiatric beds.
“I’ve received some emails that are so incredibly touching,” she said, adding that she’s heard many personal stories from families of mentally ill people who have used the beds during dire circumstances.
An impressive number of parents spoke, putting forward an emotional collective plea to the supervisors not to decrease services at the PHF.
Suzanne Riordan, of the group Families ACT!, said the need for acute beds, as well as long-term beds, is drastically needed in the county.
“Our kids have died and are suffering terribly,” she said. “We naively thought that the experts would figure it out. At this point, we are becoming experts ourselves.”
Many homeless advocates also thanked Detrick for the preservation of their funding, but expressed concern about the loss of beds.
Mike Foley, director of the Casa Esperanza Homeless Shelter, said emergency rooms have been flooded with people in mental health crisis. He said many people have to wait at Cottage Hospital for days before they are given an open bed at the PHF unit.
“What you have before you is more of that, not less of that,” he said, adding that administrative costs have continued to increase while patient care has declined.
Supervisors will deliberate Friday on which cuts will go forward, in a hearing that will begin at 9 a.m. in the fourth-floor Board Hearing Room of the County Administration Building, 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara.