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Petaluma mental health program spared from cuts

A Petaluma mental health clinic is among the programs saved from extinction in Sonoma County’s $1.78 billion budget.

The Board of Supervisors Friday approved a budget that included more than $2.5 million in one-time funding to continue providing peer counseling and family services for the next two years. Petaluma Peer Recovery Center, one of several county peer support programs to receive funding, had been slated for the chopping block until the eleventh hour reprieve from the general fund.

“Peer support is not mandated by the state, but we think it’s a good upstream investment,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “We need to work to make sure requests find a sustainable funding source built into the budget.”

Petaluma Peer Recovery Center, a 7-year-old program of Goodwill Industries of the Redwood Empire funded through the Sonoma County Behavioral Health Division, is a free drop-in program for adults with mental health challenges. In the program, members help each other through problems by listening and engaging in creative enterprises.

The center on Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma faced a July 1 closure as its $75,000 budget was threatened in a county proposal to trim $8 million from non-mandated behavioral health programs. Carol West, a peer support specialist at the center, said the funding was a result of a concerted lobbying effort.

“It’s very exciting, we’re thrilled,” she said. “These centers really make a difference.”

While the center’s budget is covered for the next two years, West said more needs to be done to ensure the longterm viability of peer support. She pointed to SB 10, a bill making its way through the state legislature, which would add a peer support component to the state Mental Health Services Act and include related Medicaid funding.

“That’s the biggest hope for sustainable funding,” she said. “It’s too exhausting to go through this every year.”

Adult mental health services, which includes residential care homes for more than 200 people diagnosed with acute mental health conditions, considered one of the community’s most vulnerable populations, escaped from the largest proposed cut.

About 70 people had turned out at the only budget public comment period on Tuesday to protest the cuts.

Also in the approved budget, $800,000 was allocated to maintain six jobs involved in disease control. The budget invested more than $41 million in recovery and resiliency programs, including $3 million to create a community alert system, $8 million for firefighting agencies and $15 million for a program that includes affordable housing development.

The Sheriff’s Office got back nine jobs that had been cut in the proposed budget, including two community service officers, two detectives and three sergeants, enabling continued operation of the Sonoma Valley and Guerneville substations.

The spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 also dedicates up to $6.8 million to unfunded pension obligations, which officials said was the largest single prepayment in county history on an obligation that totals about $370 million.

The supervisors have discretion over just $320 million in the general fund, about 18% of the budget dominated by state and federal funds earmarked for programs beyond local control. Among their decisions Friday, the supervisors set aside $2.5 million in an “economic uncertainty” fund to help weather a future downturn.

Another $2.5 million was earmarked to replenish reserves. The county currently has reserves of nearly $41 million, enough to cover a month of operations, and would like to have twice as much to provide a two-month cushion.

The budget also maintained a $5 million contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses and a new $5 million “sinking fund” for infrastructure needs, such as demolition of a dilapidated Bodega Bay pier, seismic retrofitting of the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building and repair of fire- and flood-damaged roads.

(Press Democrat Staff Writer Guy Kovner contributed to this report. Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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