As the clock winds down, mental-health service providers facing the bloodiest round of Santa Barbara County budget cuts in memory are scrambling to mobilize allies, as well as to get answers from the county about budget numbers they insist don’t add up.
The county, meanwhile, is also taking heat from the county Grand Jury for its “disorganized” collection of data and methods of accounting at the Department of Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services, or ADMHS. (The Grand Jury is a group of volunteers that produces a batch of reports every year on the performance of government agencies.)
On Thursday, the executive directors of several nonprofit mental-health service providers held a town-hall forum at the Santa Barbara Public Library for about 80 people, many of them mentally ill. The directors encouraged the audience to show up in force to what could be their final hearing before the Board of Supervisors on Monday.
“I’m not satisfied we’ve been heard,” said Roger Thompson, a service-provider client who has become a spokesman for the cause. “I’m not satisfied we’ve been loud enough. … The supervisors say it’s a rainy day, but we’re the ones who are outside.”
At 3 p.m. on Monday, the supervisors will hold a public hearing about the proposal to cut $8.4 million from the roughly $35 million budget of ADMHS’ adult services division. The board has been grappling with the issue for months, but time is running out: The 2008-09 fiscal year begins July 1. The supervisors plan to make final decisions for the entire county budget on June 13.
The nonprofit organizations that put on Thursday’s forum are in danger of losing more than half of their $9 million worth of contracts with the county. They say county-funded mental-health programs are facing a disproportionate amount of layoffs — 31 from the county, and 90 more from the nonprofit organizations — in comparison with other county programs.
“We are as important as parks, as social services, as probation, as human resources,” none of which are slated to have layoffs, said J.T. Turner, executive director of Phoenix of Santa Barbara, which operates two downtown-area homes for the mentally ill. “We need to de-stigmatize mental health and we need to move out of this step-child status.”
Mental-health advocates are arguing that no retrenchments should be made until the county can make sense of its books.
“If the grand jury can’t figure it out, we need to slow down,” said Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, Santa Barbara’s largest homeless shelter. “They had a year to figure it out. When you’re talking about peoples’ lives, it shouldn’t be cloudy.”
Specifically, Foley expressed at least three complaints about the county’s proposed budget. First, he said, it bears little resemblance to the proposal for cuts. While the county is proposing a reduction in services by $8.4 million to balance the books, the actual budget is showing a need to reduce services by only $5.6 million, and maybe even only $3.8 million, he said. Second, Foley said, the books in some cases are flat wrong: Despite the county’s initial proposal to carve a total of nearly 60 percent out of the contracts with the nonprofit service providers (known in county jargon as Community Based Organizations, or CBOs), the county budget has the CBOs down for an increase next year. Third, he said, it’s unclear how the cuts would affect administration.
“How can the board make a decision about the fate of people when they’re faced with this level of chaos?” he asked.
Foley added that under the proposal, Casa Esperanza’s $120,000 contract would take a relatively small hit: $30,000.
“We have far less money to lose (than many of the other CBOs),” he said. “But far more people are going to become homeless, and we are not going to have the resources to help them when they show up at our door.”
On Thursday, the assistant to new ADMHS director Ann Detrick told Noozhawk all media calls were to be handled by county spokesman William Boyer.
Boyer said he had not heard any commentary on the possibility that the deficit was less than $8.4 million.
“All I’ve ever heard is that it’s $8.4 million,” he said.
Boyer also said he hadn’t read the Grand Jury report, but added that the county is preparing a response, as is required by law.
The proposed cuts could include downgrading the 12-bed Casa del Mural from a center that treats severely mentally ill patients — most of them schizophrenic — to one that treats mildly mentally ill patients.
They also could include:
Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.