Advocates for the homeless and mentally ill, along with a squad of Santa Barbara County veterans, lined up Wednesday to ask, and in some cases demand, that supervisors not cut vital human services as they work to trim $25.9 million from the proposed 2012-13 budget.
Some of the services slated for elimination in the $828 million spending plan — reductions in homeless services contracts, the number of beds available to psychiatric patients, Psychiatric Health Facility costs and veterans’ services representatives — drew long, loud protests from the public on the second day of budget hearings.
The Board of Supervisors will meet at 9 a.m. Friday to begin hashing out what to keep and what to let go.
The cuts suggested in the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services (ADMHS) department drew the most emotional criticism, with nearly two dozen residents and advocates asking the supervisors to enhance services instead of cutting them.
The ADMHS proposed operating budget is $68.4 million, according to department Director Ann Detrick, $3 million of which comes from the county’s general fund.
Because the department’s funding is closely tied to Medi-Cal, it has been operating at a loss for years.
Even as Detrick outlined nearly $1.1 million in recommended budget cuts, she said her department was able to reduce the impacts of some of the cuts by adjusting current funding.
She said the department was able to mitigate all of the proposed $125,000 in cuts to homeless contracts - which amounted to $217,000 in the original budget recommendation - by juggling money from other funds.
Detrick said cuts in mental health, most significantly a reduction in the number of beds available to psychiatric patients in both county and out-of-county facilities, aren’t unavoidable, which drew heart-wrenching testimony from the public.
Most of the people who spoke told of personal experience in dealing with county mental health services. Most said the current system, in which many mentally ill offenders are jailed instead of placed in treatment because of a lack of space, is not working. Several claimed a new treatment facility - one is planned as part of a new North County Jail - would both properly treat mentally ill offenders and cut the jail population.
While many told stories of loved ones who were incarcerated after being released from psychiatric care, others said cuts in mental health funding have led to more homelessness and rising inmate populations.
Michael Foley, of the Santa Barbara homeless center Casa Esperanza, called the cuts to the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility “a disaster.”
Likewise, county Veterans’ Services are also facing cuts, the most devastating being the potential loss of another representative.
Veterans’ Services are overseen by the county’s Treasurer and Tax Collector, which has a $6.1 million operating budget proposed for 2012-13.
Proposed cuts to the department include eliminating two Protective Pay program representatives and one Veterans’ Services representative. The move would leave just one Veterans’ Services representative in the county — in Santa Maria — which drew a loud response from area vets, who called for more representatives not less.
Last year, the county cut the number of Veterans Services representatives from three to two, eliminating Lompoc’s position, which saved the county approximately $105,000.
Treasurer Harry Hagen said the cuts were regrettable because Veterans’ Services actually bring money into the county by helping local vets obtain their federal benefits. He said the representatives processed 1,542 claims last year, which brought around $9.1 million in benefits into the county.
Hagen said that figure would multiply to around $50 million once the money enters the local economy.
“Two more Veterans Service officers are not enough,” said William Connell, a member of the county Veterans’ Services Advisory Committee, adding each supervisor should have two representatives in their district. “Do not be penny wise and dollar foolish with the American veterans. We deserve better.“
Joseph Holland, county recorder and assessor, said his department, which includes the Clerk-Recorder, Elections and Assessor Divisions, often can’t take steps to cut its budget because of state and federal mandates.
“We’ve really cut all we can from Elections. When we have to put on an election, we have to put on an election,” he said.
Holland said that even though more than 50 percent of county residents vote by mail, because the elections are not completely done via mail-in ballots, they have to print many more than are needed. He said moving to a completely mail-in election would save the county 20 to 35 percent on election costs.
Holland said the county has already consolidated the number of voting precincts from 318 to 259 and couldn’t cut them any more. He also said it costs the county to staff those precincts, even though they sometimes see no more than 90 to 100 voters on an election day.
Holland said cuts in the Assessor Division, which has been reduced by 11 full-time-equivalent positions since 2007-08, are actually costing the county money. Over the past four years the division’s workload has increased from roughly 450 assessments to 750 per year, he said.
Because of the staff reductions, Holland requested $105,000 to hire a new assessor, which could mitigate between $3 million and $10 million losses in tax revenues to county agencies.