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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 7:04 am | Fair 43º


County Admits Mistakes On Mental Health, Seeks Collaborative Solution

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors faces questions from nonprofits about proposed budget cuts.

Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, Santa Barbara’s largest homeless shelter, addresses the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Monday about proposed budget cuts. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

After months of withering criticism from local nonprofit mental-health service providers, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Monday acknowledged the county could do better when it comes to managing the budget of its troubled mental health department. The supervisors said they would hold a hearing Wednesday to address pointed questions from nonprofit agencies about a spending plan the groups insist doesn’t add up.

Mike Foley of Casa Esperanza says nonprofit organizations have been trying to get answers about a discrepancy in the county’s proposed budget. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

At the same time, the board called on the nonprofit groups — which are in danger of losing their county contracts — to stop the finger pointing and start looking inward for some solutions.

Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the board’s chairman, sternly addressed the nonprofit mental-health service providers, which have warned the county and the public that the cuts would put some mentally ill people on the streets, and may even leave some of them dead. The organizations have sponsored numerous community rallies that have been embarrassing to the county. At least one of the rallies included several members of the Santa Barbara City Council.

“It’s time we stop telling the county that the county is the only one who seems callous about these services,” Carbajal said. “We need to understand that our employees care just as much about the mentally ill. It’s certainly been one-sided until today.”

Specifically, he asked the nonprofit organizations to look for areas in their own budgets that could be trimmed. In a pointed postscript, Carbajal said the city of Santa Maria recently pledged to earmark $100,000 annually to the county Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, or ADMHS, and he challenged the city of Santa Barbara to do the same.

Carbajal’s comments came at the end of a daylong budget hearing designed to give stakeholders of county programs a chance to make a plea against the proposed cuts.

The ADMHS’ adult-services division is facing the most severe cuts — a reported $8.4 million from a budget of $35 million — but other departments have items on the chopping block as well. They include one serving people with HIV, another designed to keep senior citizens out of nursing homes, and a program for tobacco prevention and cessation, among others. On Monday, advocates from those causes also spoke in defense of their programs.

All told, in the midst of a statewide budget crisis, the county is looking to cut about $33 million from its $826 million budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The retrenchments would eliminate about 216 of the county’s 4,350 full-time jobs.

As for ADMHS, the nonprofit agencies insist the actual proposed county budget seems to indicate the shortfall is $5.6 million or less — not the oft-stated $8.4 million.

Led by Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, Santa Barbara’s largest homeless shelter, the nonprofit organizations have been trying to get answers about the discrepancy.

“I asked the question on Wednesday,” he told the board Monday. “Today, I still don’t have the answer to that.”

On Monday, Carbajal said he wasn’t sure which was the true amount. He also acknowledged that the county deserves some blame for the mess.

“We haven’t been the best stewards and managers of the mental health department,” he said.

Supervisor Janet Wolf said she hopes the department’s staff adequately answers the questions.

Historically, about a third of the county’s $35 million budget for the adult-services division has been farmed out to the nonprofit organizations, known as community-based organizations, or CBOs. The proposal on the table calls for reducing their budgets 60 percent, which would take their share down to $4.2 million from about $10 million.

Also on Monday, several supervisors indicated they are not interested in cutting so deep.

“People who suffer from mental illness can’t be left to wander around out there all by themselves,” Supervisor Joe Centeno said. “We’ll come up with something we can all embrace. We might not get to the point where we want to get, but we’ll get almost there.”

Wolf also seemed opposed to the proposed cuts, saying that by her reading, they’d lead to the closure of a third of all the ADMHS clinics.

“That, to me, is just an enormous cut,” she said.

Monday’s meeting witnessed some dramatic testimony from the public.

Iris Wiltz said battles with the disease of mental illness have taken her family to hell and back.

She said she has a daughter with bipolar disorder who was sexually assaulted several times as a teenager. Once, Wiltz said she had to come to her rescue in New Orleans.

“I found my child on the street, bloody and nothing on but a T-shirt,” she said. “I have seen things that you probably will never see.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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