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Sunday, December 9 , 2018, 11:25 pm | Fair 52º


Tobacco Prevention, Mental Health on Opposite Sides in Budget Battle

Two programs find themselves pitted against each other as supervisors begin finalizing spending plans.

Among the programs funded by Santa Barbara County’s share of tobacco settlement proceeds is Friday Night Live, which provides teenagers with options to smoking and other pitfalls. Beach cleanups are popular activities. (Friday Night Live photo)

In the latest twist to Santa Barbara County’s budget quagmire, advocates of a comprehensive tobacco education program are alarmed by the suggestion of several supervisors to divert 80 percent of its budget to beleaguered mental health services.

The suggestion, brought up late last month by Supervisor Joe Centeno and backed by two of the four other supervisors, marks the first time in this crisis that the interests of another program have been directly pitted against those of the troubled Department of Alcohol, Drugs & Mental Health Services, or ADMHS.

The move would generate at least $668,000 for ADMHS, but at the expense of nearly all of the county’s smoking cessation classes and other tobacco education programs.

ADMHS’ adult-services division is facing an unprecedented $8.4 million deficit in its $35 million budget, according to county staff members. On Monday, the Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing on how to balance the budget. The clock is ticking, because the fiscal year begins July 1.

The $668,000 budget of the Tobacco Prevention Settlement Program is part of the approximately $4.5 million that comes to Santa Barbara County each year from the tobacco industry as a result of a landmark 1988 settlement between the companies and California and 45 other states. Most of the rest of the money goes into an endowment fund to be used for a rainy day, much of which also could be tapped for ADMHS.

In addition to bankrolling classes on smoking cessation at various locations such as UCSB and Hancock College, the tobacco prevention program pays for campaigns aimed at banning smoking from public beaches and parks, finances anti-smoking newspaper advertisements, hires specialists to give lessons at elementary schools on the dangers of smoking, and contributes heavily to middle- and high-school programs aimed at prevention.

“This is not fair,” said Sharon Bifano, a former member of the county Tobacco Settlement Advisory Committee, which for eight years made recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on how to spend tobacco settlement dollars until the committee disbanded officially in May.

“It has been a super successful program. It is much of the reason you can eat outdoors” without smoke nearby, she added.

Meanwhile, nonprofit mental health service providers are upset about their own major dilemma. As the deadline for passing the budget draws near, they are fighting desperately to keep their programs intact for another year, saying the situation is too murky to make any decisions that affect the county’s most vulnerable citizens. On Friday, the service providers demanded an independent audit of the county’s books — which they say are a mess — and requested that the 3 p.m. Monday hearing be postponed.

The nonprofit providers, which are in danger of losing their contracts with the county, dispute the $8.4 million figure, saying the true deficit appears closer to $5.6 million or less.

Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza — Santa Barbara’s largest homeless shelter — issued a news release Friday quoting a senior ADMHS fiscal representative’s response to his inquiries about the perceived budget discrepancies.

“To be honest, when it came to completing the (ADMHS budget) we simply ran out of time,” Foley quoted the representative as saying. “When we knew that we had to make adjustments to balance, we knew that we would have to go back and allocate the expenditures at a later date.”

Friday Night Live beach cleanups yield thousands of discarded cigarette butts. (Friday Night Live photo)

Further infuriating the mental-health service providers is the fact that ADMHS officials will not be giving a presentation Monday. Instead, staff members will be available to answer questions from the board. Meanwhile, other departments will be making presentations to the board during their own budget hearings.

“It seems to me the mentally ill and their family members deserve to hear the full picture,” Foley said. “Especially when the budget they are looking at isn’t accurate.”

County spokesman William Boyer said Friday that the meeting will go on as scheduled.

“We have to hold the hearing; it’s been legally posted and noticed,” he said. “The board might decide to postpone action but we have to legally hold the hearing.”

Boyer added that the decision about whether to make a staff presentation was left up to each department director.

In any case, one thing seems clear: On Monday, at least two factions are expected to be there in force. And as often happens in times of economic turmoil, it appears they’ll be pitted against each other.

On Friday, neither the Tobacco Prevention Settlement people nor Foley seemed to feel very comfortable commenting about the other program. Foley did say he appreciates how other interests are fighting for what they feel passionately about.

But he added: “Our job right now in the mental-health advocacy community is to also convey to the board that there will be a number of people who will literally die — now — if they don’t get the services they need,” he said. “We’re in the unfortunate position where we just sort of have to trust the Board of Supervisors to make the absolute best decision. And we absolutely do trust them to make the absolute best decision.”

On May 20, the supervisors voted 3-2 to keep open the option to re-appropriate the $668,000, with Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf in opposition. If the board goes through with the move, it would be the first time in the eight-year history of the Tobacco Settlement Program that the entire budget was diverted.

“I don’t know that we can sustain these monstrous cuts to our community-based organizations in mental health services,” Centeno said. “Maybe here we have at least a few dollars we can throw in that direction.”

Although opposed to Centeno’s motion, Carbajal brought up another idea: using $2 million from the tobacco endowment that has been saved up for a rainy day. That idea, too, seemed well received by the board, although it appears Centeno and Supervisor Joni Gray still would like to use the $668,000 from the Tobacco Prevention Settlement Program.

For their part, tobacco-program advocates say they don’t have a big problem with Carbajal’s suggestion to use the $2 million reserve. But they adamantly oppose dismantling the tobacco prevention program.

The $668,000 re-appropriation wouldn’t completely obliterate the budget — the program also receives a $150,000 from a state grant — but it would come close.

The tobacco-prevention advocates say Santa Barbara’s program is uniquely effective. They say the success rate for the cessation classes is 40 percent, nearly double what’s considered to be a good measure by the U.S. Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said Jayne Brechwald, associate director of the American Lung Association of California. Brechwald has an office in Santa Barbara.

“I think it would be a tremendous loss,” Brechwald said. “Not to mention that that is the No. 1 preventable disease. Smoking probably causes the highest amount of health-related costs. And it’s totally preventable.”

The tobacco cessation and prevention program also funds about 40 percent of a $120,000 high school program called Friday Night Live. Serving hundreds of students, the program, which also has a middle-school component, is a club that, among other things, organizes campus events promoting the idea that kids have plenty of options besides drinking, doing drugs and smoking.

Many of the students in the club also participate in beach cleanups, picking up cigarette butts to show to civic leaders in an effort to promote a cigarette ban on South Coast beaches.

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

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