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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 7:44 am | Fair 44º


County Budget Decision Leaves Mental-Health Advocates in Limbo

The Board of Supervisors finds ways to lessen the cuts, but some nonprofits say the effort may not be enough.

Mental-health advocates expressed mixed emotions about a budget approved Friday by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, calling it a “B-plus” effort to avoid the deepest cuts in memory to services for the mentally ill.

Meanwhile, lingering disagreement over the accuracy of the budget numbers created a fog that obscured the meaning of Friday’s action.

“I’d rather have gotten an ‘A,’ but I’ll take the ‘B-plus,’ ” said Mike Foley, the executive director of homeless shelter Casa Esperanza, which, like many other nonprofit organizations, has a contract with the county. “On the other hand, it’s all so confusing right now that it’s hard to be pleased.”

The main task on Friday for the five elected supervisors was to try to find ways to lessen the severity of cuts proposed by the county’s staff for the 2008-09 budget. The cuts are necessary largely because of skyrocketing costs of retirement benefits for county employees.

Meanwhile, although the budget talks already have been painful, the worst could be yet to come. State legislators are still dithering over their budget, which needs to account for a shortfall of at least $15 billion. When they pass it — which should happen this summer — the effects on counties such as Santa Barbara could be dire.

Regardless, the board’s maneuvers on Friday seemed to keep whole, at least temporarily, some endangered programs — such as HIV education and geriatric care — and minimize the damage to others — such as a tobacco prevention program, which was looking down the barrel of losing its entire $668,000 budget but instead took a $50,000 hit.

The department that garnered the most attention was mental health, known officially as Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services, or ADMHS.

The staff had proposed an $8.3 million reduction from its $72 million budget. Because the lion’s share of that cut was to come out of the ADMHS department’s $35 million adult services division, officials across the board feared the cut would trigger a dramatic rise in the homeless population.

On Friday, the board found some extra money and softened the blow by $4.4 million. But here’s the confusion: The county staff and the nonprofit organizations that worry about losing their county contracts disagree over the amount of the shortfall. Foley and officials from other nonprofit organizations contend that the true amount is $5.6 million — not $8.3 million.

If they’re correct, then cuts to the 2008-09 budget would be relatively minimal, maybe $1.2 million. If they’re wrong, the amount could be closer to $3.9 million.

On Friday, the nonprofits and other mental-health advocates seemed to be of two minds about the decision.

At one point, they cheered when Supervisor Joe Centeno — who was largely seen as the swing vote — gave the nod to give the department an extra $150,000.

However, after the meeting, Annmarie Cameron, executive director of the Mental Health Association, said the cuts still might mean closure for her two houses — Casa Juana Maria off Milpas Street and the Lion’s House in Montecito — for schizophrenics and others who are mentally ill. “It’s not all bad, but the nonprofits will bear the brunt of the cuts,” she said. “Unless the director (Ann Detrick) decides she wants to spread it out evenly.”

Also less than satisfied Friday were the board’s two fiscal hawks, Supervisors Brooks Firestone and Joni Gray, who cast the two dissenting votes of the motion to approve the budget.

They said the board approved a $200 million discretionary budget that calls for spending more than it takes in by $2.9 million. “We’re just spending more than we’re making,” Firestone said. “That will impact the county in years to come.”

ADMHS won’t be the only program to experience cuts. In a blow to schools, for example, the truancy program will lose all but $50,000 of its $400,000 budget. The board reasoned that schools should do more to pitch into the program, which tries to get kids to stop playing hooky. The Planning and Development Budget lost $300,000, meaning there will be fewer county Planning Commission meetings.

On Friday, Supervisor Salud Carbajal expressed disappointment at failing to muster the necessary three votes — Centeno was the other supporter — to boost health-care funding for uninsured children by $500,000. “That is one of the most vulnerable segments in our community,” he said. “That was very painful for me.”

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


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