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Mental Health Advocates Protest Possible Cuts

Mental health professionals and patients alike pleaded with the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to spare their services from a large round of potential budget cuts.

Mental health professionals and patients alike pleaded with the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to spare their services from a large round of potential budget cuts.

County officials say the supervisors must cut up to $6.4 million from the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services to make it financially solvent for the current fiscal year ending in July.

On Feb. 5, the supervisors will consider making the cuts, which, if made that deep, would amount to about 8 percent of the department’s $73.5 million budget.

The purpose of Tuesday’s discussion was simply to schedule a day for the hearing, not to consider making the proposed cuts. Nonetheless, mental health advocates showed up in force to protest the possible reductions.

About 10 of the roughly two dozen people who spoke at the meeting described themselves as being mentally ill.

“When I was 23, I was diagnosed with a mental illness through no fault of my own,” said Dinah Wellsand, who added that she was locked up in an institution for 2½ years until she found help from local services. “Now, at age 56, I still need the medication to make me normal. ... I’ve always been known as high-functioning but I still need treatment.”

A man named Hunter McFarlane said he’d been sleeping outside the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for about six months until county services enabled him to find a place to live.

“The medication works,” he said. “I think a lot of taxpayers would like to keep the mentally ill off the streets.”

The budget woes of the mental health department have been festering for at least a year. County staff members say the shortfall exists in part because the state – which funds the lion’s share of the program – has been habitually slow to reimburse the county for the expenses. Plus, budget expenditures have risen beyond revenues, said county financial analyst Zandra Cholmondeley.

“It’s a matter of bringing the expenses and revenues into alignment,” Cholmondeley said. “So you just have to scale back and provide the services that you have the money to provide. But as to how much that is, we are working on it.

Janet Wolf
On Tuesday, Supervisor Janet Wolf said she was frustrated by the staff’s wildly varying estimates of the deficit.

“I had been hearing $2.8 million, $3.4 million, you know, trying to work on that issue, and we got this sheet today – dated Dec. 26 – and it shows $6.4 million,” she said. “It’s not just off by a couple thousand. That’s a $3 million difference. The target keeps moving.”

County Administrator Mike Brown responded by saying that budgets tend to do that.

“Budgets are by their nature estimates,” he said. “The problem is, they are going to change, and we are going to have to deal with it.”

One source of consternation among mental health advocates is how county officials have suggested an across-the-board cut.

“If they did a 10 percent cut in the prison system, they wouldn’t allow people in the streets who are murderers, terrorists and rapists,” said Jim Piekarski, the clinical director of Phoenix of Santa Barbara, a nonprofit organization serving the mentally ill that receives two-thirds of its funding from the county. “Somehow, because we are working with the mentally ill, that kind of thoughtfulness is not being used.”

The advocates fear for several specific programs.

The cuts, for instance, could result in the closure of one of two local housing facilities for the mentally ill run by an agency that contracts with the county mental health department, said J.T. Turner, executive director of Phoenix of Santa Barbara.

The retrenchments also could cause Phoenix of Santa Barbara to lose some of the beds in one or both of its downtown-area homes for the mentally ill.

Also at risk would be the county-funded counseling staff that works with residents of a new city housing program for the homeless, called El Carrillo, located at 315 W. Carrillo St., on the downtown side of the Highway 101 on-ramp.

“Housing is not enough for many of these people,” Turner said. “They need to be encouraged to take their meds, handle their budgets, deal with relationships in a reasonable way. Without these services many tend to spiral downward.”

After Tuesday’s meeting, a group of about a dozen mental health patients gathered with some mental health professionals on the steps of the County Administration building to hold up signs criticizing the proposed cuts and share stories.

Emma Cummings said getting evicted from her apartment several years ago triggered an intense breakdown that she believes might have rendered her homeless had she not been put in touch with county services.

“My medication wasn’t right,” she said.

Cummings said she remembers running out of her home in the middle of a rainstorm and getting lost. At some point during that day, she came into contact with her social worker, and fell asleep while talking to her.

Ultimately, the social worker pointed her in the direction of Phoenix of Santa Barbara. After her stay there, another social worker helped her find an apartment of her own. Now, a social worker checks in every other week to make sure she is taking her medication, and to provide companionship.

“It helps to have someone check in, and monitor your living situation,” she said. “That’s what they want to cut.”

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