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County eyes budget bailout for imperiled health jobs, programs

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Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a series of funding shifts that would help backfill a $19 million budget shortfall in the Department of Health Services and avert sharp proposed cuts in mental health and drug-abuse staffing and programs.

The tentative solution would tap $16.9 million in one-time funds over a period of two years and reduce proposed layoffs across the department, one of the county’s largest, by half, affecting 14 employees. Overall, the number of vacant and filled positions targeted for elimination would drop from 107 to 80.

The bailout could get final approval from supervisors at the conclusion of their budget hearings, likely this week.

“I’m very hopeful. We need the funding,” said Barbie Robinson, the county’s health services director, who presented the “restoration funding” plan to the board Tuesday. The 540-employee department includes public and mental health divisions and is funded predominantly through state and federal funds.

The one-time money would come from a number of sources, including state repayments for repealed government mandates; transfers from other county agencies, including the Department of Human Services, the Sheriff’s Office and the probation department; and former redevelopment dollars.

News of the funding surge came as a relief to county mental health employees and local nonprofit groups, who feared deep cuts to their staff rolls and spending as a result of the budget shortfall.

Such plans, signaled earlier this year by Robinson, were widely criticized by many in the local mental health community, who said that programs were in greater demand following last year’s devastating fires.

“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” Liz Fiekowsky, a field representative for Engineers & Scientists of California Local 20, said to county supervisors during the budget hearing. The union represents many of the affected health services employees.

Prior to this week, up to 29 filled health services positions had been targeted for layoffs.

Under the plan endorsed by the Board of Supervisors, of the 14 layoffs planned going forward, 10 would affect administrative or information technology jobs, and the remaining four would be employees in public health and behavioral health.

Cuts to nonprofits service providers would drop from $9 million to $3.1 million.

Charlotte Fess, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works as a county behavioral health clinician, thanked county officials for helping to soften the blow.

“I see every day the need that we have for services,” Fess said. She cited a number of changes being made to the county’s behavioral health delivery system that should result in greater efficiencies and cost savings.

“I really do have faith that we can come through this,” she said. “This is about real people who live in our community.”

Robinson, who was hired as health services director in early 2017, has blamed the shortfall on years of inaccurate revenue projections associated with Medi-Cal funds, flat funding for health services shifted from the state to counties, and rising costs.

The new budget proposal punctuates a tumultuous five months for the health department, where staff and spending cuts were signaled as far back as January.

In early March, the longtime director of the mental health division, Michael Kennedy, stepped down from his post on paid leave, a move that county sources said was fueled by his opposition to many of the cuts.

Kennedy has since agreed to resign as part of a settlement with the county that holds him blameless for the budget troubles while extending his paid leave to July 5. The Press Democrat obtained the settlement last week through a public records request. Kennedy and county officials declined to elaborate on the settlement or the specific reasons for his departure.

As supervisors Tuesday voiced their support for the $16.9 million investment in health services, some board members called for the county to put more money into mental health and substance abuse programs, even if it meant siphoning money from other obligations.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said that Tuesday would have been her wedding anniversary with her late husband, Peter Kingston, who suffered from deep anxiety and depression illness and took his own life in 2011. She said rates of suicide are rising and the county is “not doing enough” to address what she called a mental health crisis.

Zane advocated for an additional $3 million for the behavioral health division, which accounts for roughly a third of the county’s roughly $250 million spending on health services.

Supervisors will consider that proposal alongside other funding requests later this week, as the board prepares to adopt a budget for the coming fiscal year.

County health officials referred to the $16.9 million funding as a two-year bridge that would allow the department to implement changes hoped to increase revenue and reduce costs.

Those revisions include a redesign of the mental health division, with consolidated services at several “one-stop” campuses in key populated areas; establishing a much-needed psychiatric health facility that will increase Medi-Cal funding for adults; and passage of a 2020 ballot measure to help fund mental health, substance abuse and homeless services.