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Supervisors Want Mental Health Cuts Pared Back

Staff proposal for steep reductions is rejected for now as board authorizes last bailout payment.

To the mild relief of mental health advocates, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday indicated it is disinclined to cut the budget for the mental-health department as drastically as has been proposed by county staff.

But the five supervisors unanimously accepted the recommendations as a provisional plan, in case something else cannot be worked out by the June deadline.

In an effort to balance the county’s hemorrhaging budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year, the staff has recommended cutting $8.4 million from the $35 million adult services divison of the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services.

Under the proposal, about half of the cuts would come from county contracts with a host of nonprofit organizations that provide services to the homeless and mentally ill. All told, the proposed cuts would reduce the existing nonprofit contracts by nearly 60 percent, from a total of $10 million to $4.2 milion. The other cuts would come from services provided by the county.

At Tuesday’s meeting, which took place in Santa Maria and witnessed some 80 public speakers, the board also unanimously decided to give the department the last of three $2.3 million bailouts for the current fiscal year (2007-08), as was widely expected.

With the exception of Supervisor Brooks Firestone, the supervisors seemed — to varying degrees — less than satisfied with the proposal for cuts for 2008-09.Particularly skeptical were Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf.

Carbajal said he believes the department staff — led by county Chief Administrator Mike Brown and Ann Detrick, the new ADMHS director — must take another crack at minimizing the blow to the county’s “most vulnerable.”

“I think our staff did the best job they could under the circumstances,” Carbajal said. “But I’m not sure that we’ve been creative enough.”

Carbajal said he’d like to see staff put together a menu of options, such as the possibility of raising fees. As an example of a possible fee, he cited charging people to park at county beaches, as the city of Santa Barbara does. But Carbajal stressed that he only wants to see the option; he is not yet ready to support such an idea.

“I’ve never been open to charging fees,” he said. “I think it’s a slippery slope, because it undermines public access. But we can’t have our cake and eat it, too.”

Carbajal added that, a couple of weeks ago, he and Wolf tried raising some developer fees that have remained static for some time, but it was rejected by his three colleagues.

“That would have saved us about $350,000 a year,” he said. “Well, here we are, scrounging for dollars for the mental health department.”

Carbajal also called on cities such as Santa Barbara to consider contributing money, noting that they do receive millions of dollars from the county in redevelopment funds.

Wolf, too, expressed her dissatisfaction with the proposal.

“I look at this as a dismantling — between a 20 and 25 percent cut,” she said.

Toward the beginning of the meeting, Wolf interrupted Detrick’s staff presentation several times to ask pointed questions.

For instance, she asked to see information about increases in salaries and bonuses for the department’s management.

“I’m not saying it’s good, bad or indifferent," she said. "I would just like to have the information.”

Supervisor Joe Centeno, too, said he is uncomfortable with the amount of cuts proposed. He suggested looking beyond just the ADMHS’ adult-services division to absorb the hit.

ADMHS works with a total budget of about $83 million. But it is only the $35 million budget of its adult-services division that is facing cuts. So far, no one has seriously suggested cutting from the alcohol and drug portions of it — perhaps because those other divisions are more solvent.

Supervisor Joni Gray seemed less skeptical than Carbajal, Centeno and Wolf, suggesting that nonprofit organizations try to look more toward private fund raising.

“You just can’t count on government like you’d like to,” she said.

She did, however, express optimism about a presentation by Rusty Selix, co-author of Proposition 63, which brings money into California mental-health services departments through a "millionaires" tax. On Tuesday, Selix insisted that the board can avoid many of the cuts by tapping into more of that money.

“I’m sure that every county in this state would absolutely be delighted to get this news,” Gray said.

Most enthusiatic about the staff’s proposal was Firestone, who noted that other county departments are facing similar crises.

At first, Firestone voted against the motion to give the department the last of three $2.3 million bailouts for the 2007-08 year, because he was under the impression that his colleagues were not interested in accepting the staff report calling for the $8.4 million in cuts for 2008-09.

“I was willing to support (the bailout) because there is a plan, and it is a solid plan,” he said, after voting no. “We asked for a plan, and the plan is good. That was the basis to adopt the (bailout). So I don’t understand the reluctance to receive the excellent effort to address the budgetary issues.”

Later, the board voted to accept the plan, but not before several supervisors clarified that accepting the plan is not the same thing as adopting the cuts.

After this vote, Firestone said he wanted to change his vote on the bailout. He was able to do so.

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