The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will be determining the fiscal budget for 2008-09 this month. Severe cuts are expected because of a decrease in revenue, including property taxes. The decisions about where to cut and how deeply will be difficult and must be carefully considered. We need to weigh the short-term gains against the long-term costs when making cuts to important programs that serve the neediest among us, including the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, or ADMHS.
As it is, only 2 percent of the county budget goes to ADMHS, which is much lower than the 6 percent mean contribution by other California counties. Of the proposed $8.4 million budget cut for ADMHS, 60 percent would be to the Community Based Organizations that provide housing and other services. This translates into expelling 800 people currently receiving services, cutting away a safety net that helps people struggling to be self-sufficient, productive and healthy members of society.
Cutting funding for emergency shelter, residential treatment and permanent affordable housing with supportive services represents a budgetary short-sightedness. In the long run, services now provided by ADMHS save the county money that would otherwise pay for hospital beds, jail fees and emergency services.It also denies life’s most basic necessities to people who are in the greatest need.
Studies show that permanent housing with supportive services is both cost-effective and successful. It doesn’t make sense to “house” people in expensive facilities such as jails, emergency rooms, psychiatric health facilities and mental institutions. The county’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness is an effort “to reconfigure the homeless system into a housing system.” Cutting the ADMHS budget will undermine this effort.
Over the past few months, community leaders and advocates have been working together to fight these cuts. The Santa Barbara County Action Network, SB CAN, supports this effort as part of The General Fund Fairness Campaign. We advocate an increase in funding to ADMHS above the current 2 percent level. Eventually, funding for these vital services should be increased to at least match the 6 percent statewide mean.
Given the dire economic state of our county, state and nation, the need for affordable housing and services to people struggling to make ends meet is bound to increase. Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, which provides housing and support services to Santa Barbara’s homeless population, reports a 17 percent increase in clients since January of this year. We need to make sure that the safety net provided by our social services will be there when people need it — not only for pragmatic reasons, but because it’s the right thing to do. Someone’s child, or parent, or neighbor is suffering. The services needed to help them restore their lives must not be cut.
Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s effort at the May 20 board hearing to move $4 million in county reserve funds into the public health and mental health departments is a welcome beginning. We hope that during the June budget hearings our supervisors will follow his lead and ensure that next year we will not only have a balanced budget, but one that provides the basic services to those in our community who need them most.
Olivia Uribe is associate director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network, SB CAN. She can be reached at 805.563.0463 or [email protected] This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.