Thursday, June 12, 2008

County moves on with budget cuts


On a day that saw proposed budget cuts to programs impacting children, the elderly and the mentally ill, the majority of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors opted to move forward with cuts to all three segments of the population.
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the board’s chair, said protecting the area’s most vulnerable citizens should top the list of government’s priorities, but to his dismay, that didn’t happen.

“I’m just really disappointed and am at a loss for words because I think this is something essential,” he said. “That’s what this was all about for me. I don’t think we were taking care of the most vulnerable at the level we should.”
At the forefront of the cuts that will likely be made permanent during Friday’s budget sessions, are several million in the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services (ADMHS).
As day two of the three-day budget session came to a close, three supervisors, Joe Centeno, Carbajal and Janet Wolf each proposed a different dollar amount to help shore up that department’s projected $8.4 million deficit.
Wolf said she would be willing to spring for roughly $5.5 million, Carbajal proposed $8 million and Centeno, the crucial third vote needed to allocate any amount of money to the deficit, was willing to contribute just over $4 million. Supervisor’s Brooks Firestone and Joni Gray didn’t say anything about the department’s budget deficit during deliberations.
Realizing the need for compromise, Carbajal asked his colleagues what amount they could agree on, and the number ended up around $4.8 million. Roughly $700,000 of his was recommended by county CEO Mike Brown to fund the department at its current level through July. Brown also recommended $800,000 of this be spent on anticipated “true-ups,” or bills from the state.
That leaves $3.3 million to put towards the deficit, a number that mental health advocates believe will greatly chop county funding for nonprofit mental health providers, and as a result, purge hundreds of the mentally ill from stable environments.
“Hundreds of people are going to be harmed,” said Mike Foley, executive director of the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter. “Our belief is if less than $5 million is contributed, mentally ill people will be harmed and lose services and become homeless.”
But Foley expressed optimism as well. Because of a 40 cent on the dollar state match with mental health funds, he said the $3.3 million is actually $4.6 million. Which means all the board has to come up with in order to reach the $8 million mark, is an additional $1.7 million, plus the matching money.
Foley said he and other non profit leaders are going to do everything in their power over the next two days to convince Centeno that this is a worthwhile plan.
Another of Carbajal’s priorities was to expand funding for the Children’s Health Initiative, a program that began last fiscal year with $1 million to help insure some the county’s several thousand children who lack health care. In the past year, the initiative has been wildly successful, locating and insuring nearly $1,000 children, who Carbajal said stayed out of the area’s emergency rooms, which generally costs the county more than providing preventative care.
Supervisor Centeno was a main supporter of the initiative, and when it came time yesterday to allot an additional $500,000 to the program, no other supervisors would pledge their support.
Supervisor Wolf said she couldn’t in good conscious support the expansion of any program, or create new programs during a time when the county is facing one of the worst fiscal crisis’ in its history.
“These are just tough decisions,” Wolf said. “I feel like you’ve just got to come out on one side or another.”
Another program that may end up getting the ax Friday is the Adult and Aging Network, which received $128,000 last year and is part of the Department of Social Services. Though a geriatric assessment program will likely end up being funded, Carbajal said so should the Adult and Aging Network, which doesn’t appear to have support from three board members.
Centeno lobbied heavily for his colleagues to support a county-run health clinic in Cuyama, which was on the chopping block.
“They have been abandoned for as long as I’ve been here and they understand and realize that they have been abandoned,” he said of his constituents in Cuyama. “If we cut their clinic where are these people going to go?”
After Centeno’s speech, all four of the remaining supervisors said they would support him in funding the clinic.
Supervisor Firestone said he isn’t in favor of dipping into the county’s $24 million strategic reserve to temporarily fix a problem that could get worse next year.
“I just don’t think we should in any way cut into our reserves,” he said. “Our budget reserves are for when something goes wrong. To spend our reserves up front after our staff has done such a wonderful job for us to balance the budget would be I think to make a huge mistake.”
Centeno responded by reminding Firestone that if the county’s current situation isn’t an emergency, he doesn’t know what is.
“If we’re not there, I don’t know what we’re doing here today folks,” he said over applause from the crowd.
A number of other possible cuts, such as an HIV prevention class, the Agricultural Advisory Commission and an oak tree specialist will all likely be funded during Friday’s budget session, which begins at 9 a.m. in the County Administration Building at 105 E. Anapamu St.

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