Friday, June 6, 2008

Proposed mental health cuts spark outrage in community


Four days and counting.
That was one of the many things going through the minds of local nonprofit leaders, mental health advocates and the mentally ill yesterday who attended a town hall meeting at the main branch of the Santa Barbara Public Library, where dozens of people voiced their concerns about a proposed cut of $8.4 million to adult mental health services.
When the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors convenes Monday to begin a weeklong session of budget deliberations, cuts to mental health will be on the table. And while it’s impossible now to know exactly what will transpire, one thing is certain: a diverse group of stakeholders in the mental health community will be there in person, as they have whenever the board discusses their lives in terms of dollars and cents.

“We’re in a corner and we’ve got to show them what we can do,” said Roger Thompson, an outspoken critic of the proposed cuts who urged all of those present at the meeting to show up during the budget meetings.
Local nonprofit leaders fielded questions from the audience about the cuts and took notes, promising to deliver the questions and comments to the board next week.
Emily Allen, a homeless advocate, urged the board to treat cuts to mental health the same way they treat development: require a thorough analysis of the consequences, similar to an environmental impact report.
“It seems like there’s no process like that at the county level,” she said.
JT Turner, executive director of Phoenix of Santa Barbara, which provides mental health and drug treatment services, called adult mental health the “stepchild” of the system.
“We need to destigmatize mental health. We need to move out of this stepchild status,” he said. “We cannot cut one service to one person without having a specific plan.”
Mike Foley, executive director of the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter, said before anyone gets laid off or loses mental health services, the county needs to do some housekeeping.
Firstly, he said the board should fully fund the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services (ADMHS) through the 2008-2009 fiscal year. Once this is done, he said the department should undergo a forensic audit.
Foley also said the county should create an independent, blue ribbon commission that would be charged with fully redesigning the department. He said this would “achieve both fiscal and therapeutic integrity in the future.”
In order to prevent cuts during fiscal year 2007-2008, which is drawing to close, the board bailed out ADMHS to the tune of $6.9 million. For this, those at the meeting were grateful. But between the revelation of that deficit and the anticipated deficit of $8.4 million next year, Foley and many other non-profit leaders believe little has been done to truly solve the problem.
Foley said this sentiment has been compounded in recent weeks by inaccurate information from the county.
One example is in the county’s 2008-2009 budget book, which under the chapter about adult mental health funding, says nothing about $8.4 million in cuts. Instead, the only number discussed ranges from $5 million to about $5.6 million in cuts.
Foley said he’s questioned the county about the discrepancy and has only been told that officials ran out of time while preparing the book.
But that doesn’t help him or anyone else who analyzes the budget understand the exact magnitude of cuts that could occur.
“If you can’t get this part right, how do you cut services for somebody?” Foley said.
A number of other items in the budget also troubled Foley.
One is a $900,000 increase in administration expenditures in children’s mental health programs.
The alcohol and drug programs administration is expected to see an increase of $300,000, while the sub-department as a whole will see $800,000 in cuts, most of which come from treatment and prevention services.
Foley said he doesn’t know what to expect at the upcoming budget meetings other than surprise. He also said he trusts the board to find the necessary funding and make the right decisions as they have done in the past.
But that’s going to be more difficult than ever with the overall budget picture demanding countywide cuts of more than $26 million.
“I think we expect surprise,” Foley said. “We’ve had a number of surprises already this week.”

No comments: