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Local News

Centeno May Hold Key to Mental Health Funding

Board of Supervisors plans Friday vote on final budget cuts.

With the Board of Supervisors split on how deeply to cut into Santa Barbara County’s budget for its troubled mental-health services department, it appears Supervisor Joe Centeno is the swing vote. His final decision on the matter Friday could have far-reaching effects on the county’s mentally ill.

On Wednesday, Centeno gave a strong indication of what he’d like to do: split the difference between two factions on the five-member elected board, whose suggestions range from cutting everything recommended by county staff to cutting nothing at all.

The supervisors Wednesday laid bare their proposals for cuts to not only the mental-health services department but to the entire county budget. On Friday, they are expected to finally vote on the budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

Mental health — officially, the Department of Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services, or ADMHS —- has dominated much of the board’s discussion on the budget because it is the department that would be hardest hit by the cuts.

Specifically, Centeno’s proposal amounts to a request to cut the ADMHS budget by about $3.6 million, instead of the $8.4 million that was previously recommended by county staff.

After the meeting, Centeno’s proposal was met with ambivalence by a spokesman for the nonprofit mental-health service providers that are in danger of losing significant portions of their county contracts.

“On the one hand, I’m grateful,” said Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, Santa Barbara’s largest homeless shelter. “On the other hand, hundreds of people would be hurt by that decision.”

All told, the supervisors need to carve $26 million from the county’s $785 million budget. The retrenchments, prompted largely by soaring retirement costs for county employees and California’s economic slump, would eliminate about 215 of the county’s 4,350 full-time jobs.

Other potential major cuts include:

  • $3.5 million from the Sheriff’s Department
  • $2 million in a capital improvement project for a new swimming pool in New Cuyama
  • $1 million from juvenile hall
  • $330,000 from the Tobacco Prevention Settlement Program
  • $300,000 from truancy prevention
  • $129,000 from the treasury department
  • $85,000 from an agency called the “Aging and Long-Term Care Network,” which monitors the effectiveness of local services for senior citizens
  • When it comes to ADMHS, Supervisors Brook Firestone and Joni Gray supported the staff’s recommendations for the deeper cuts. Supervisor Janet Wolf, meanwhile, wanted to reduce the cuts to mental health to around $1.4 million, and Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the board chairman, wanted to fully fund the program.

    At times the painful talk of how to prioritize programs led to some tense moments.

    As part of her elaborate proposal, Wolf infuriated Centeno by suggesting that the county redirect about $2 million earmarked for a new swimming pool in New Cuyama, a tiny town located on the farthest reaches of the county, on arid land 60 miles east of Santa Maria.

    “I don’t think it’s prudent to expand or develop new programs,” she said.

    Centeno, whose district includes New Cuyama — generally considered the county’s poorest city — said people in that “little town” are too often neglected by the county for political reasons.

    “Here we have a community that is so disenfranchised, and we sit around and say it’s OK, we can take that $2 million and put it somewhere else,” he said. “The funding has been there for three years; we’ve spent money to design and do the environmental assessment of the project. We’ve just gone out to contractors to get that thing built.”

    Carbajal, meanwhile, was upset that he could muster just one supporting vote — Centeno’s — for expanding the county’s health-care program for uninsured children. Carbajal said his proposal to increase the funding by $500,000 this year would bring the number of uninsured children down to about 14,000 from the current 15,000.

    “It just pains me to think there are children who every day don’t have access to preventative medical care,” he said. “When they have a tooth ache or a tummy ache they can’t get some kind of basic medical care.”

    Centeno’s proposal to cut half of the $668,000 budget of a tobacco prevention program drew immediate responses from Carbajal and Wolf.

    “If we don’t help our young people to stop smoking, we’re going to see additional health problems,” Wolf said.

    Meanwhile, less than two days before the actual cuts are to be made, officials still disagree on the amount of the actual shortfall: county officials say it’s $8.4 million; the nonprofit mental-health providers argue that it’s $5.6 million.

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

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