Sonoma County may ask for sales tax hike to fund mental health services

A local poll showing strong public support for mental health funding could bring a proposed sales tax increase to Sonoma County voters in March and ease pressure on a county department wracked by years of budgetary mismanagement.

Since 2014, the Department of Health Services has seen deficits totaling $33 million, the result of years of bad budgeting detailed most recently in a scathing Civil Grand Jury report.

The report cites, among other things, hopeful but inaccurate budget forecasting, lack of appropriate training, critical failures in compliance oversight and leadership’s failure to understand complex, government finance systems.

County officials, including department Director Barbie Robinson, agreed with most of the findings. Sonoma County supervisors approved their response to the report Tuesday.

But they also said state and federal governments don’t do enough to fund mental health. The grand jury report noted the same.

With ongoing lobbying efforts bearing little fruit, and proposed cuts to staff or services drawing sharp criticism, supervisors have taken to filling funding gaps with general fund dollars. But the results of a recent county-funded poll of Sonoma County voters offer another path forward - a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would generate $23 million for mental health services in Sonoma County.

The idea earned “well over 70%” support in recent polling conducted by Oakland-based EMC Research, Supervisor Chairman David Rabbitt said in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview. That level of support means such a measure is a strong favorite to pass in an election requiring two-thirds voter support. It also means Sonoma County supervisors are unlikely to waste any time.

The ballot question has been on the county’s radar for months, and was included in the Department of Health Services summary in the 2019-20 proposed budget.

But officials had always circled November 2020. That could change.

“With the numbers (we) got back, (we) may move it up,” Rabbitt said. “We would want to make a decision pretty quickly.”

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has shown strong support for mental health services in the county, committing $15.3 million to keep priority behavioral health programs afloat in the past two years.

On Tuesday, the board reinstated funding for a mental health program targeting parents.

Robinson said she’s confident the board would step up again if necessary.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she knows what she would do.

“I’m going to do what I’ve been doing the last couple of years: Say to the county administrator, ‘We can’t afford not to have certain county programs,’?” Zane said.

While supervisors agreed with many of the negative findings in the grand jury report, Rabbitt said the department is on better footing today.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Rabbitt thanked Robinson and Department of Health Services staff for “turning the ship around, and pointing us in the right direction.”

The metaphor is apt, as the unsparing grand jury report is titled “A Perfect Storm.”

The report focuses on a budget time frame that began 11 months after Robinson was appointed interim director of the department, but Robinson said by that time the budget had already been developed.

Further, with the need to reorganize the department, bureaucratic inertia in a department of more than 500-plus staff members and an annual budget of $243.4 million became a very real thing.

“It was very challenging with respect to being able to identify and unearth challenges,” Robinson said.

The Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury is a group of volunteers appointed by Sonoma Superior Court judges that investigates complaints centered on local governmental agencies. This year, along with the Behavioral Health budget, the grand jury released reports on water procurement following a major earthquake, the Sonoma County Jail and deferred maintenance on the county’s properties.

The government agencies at the center of the reports are allowed a retort, and Behavioral Health responses mostly hewed toward agreement with the report while also praising the department for transparency, pointing to similar problems around the state and across the country and putting the onus on state and federal entities to better fund mental health care.

The grand jury report noted the dearth of state and federal funding.

Zane honed in on the funding aspect during public remarks Tuesday.

“Their determination that state and federal funding for behavioral health services is insufficient to meet the needs of the community - that is no surprise to anybody,” Zane said. “Not a week goes by that I don’t talk to a state or federal representative about the shortage of dollars for mental health services. It’s just not acceptable. It’s not acceptable because they haven’t prioritized it.”

Part of the problem lies with the state’s realignment program, which has pushed government revenue growth once earmarked for behavioral health into new in-home support services programs.

But Robinson said she would balance the budget even if state or federal funding doesn’t grow, leaving a dwindling list of options, including the following: painful budget cuts, a pledge of more general fund money from county supervisors or a successful ballot question in November 2020.

Rabbitt said he’ll ask about the ballot measure Wednesday, saying he was surprised at the strong public support for mental health - support Rabbitt said mirrored what one might see in San Francisco.

“The numbers may not be able to get any higher,” Rabbitt said. “It was overwhelmingly supportive.”

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