In its third go-around with Casa del Mural, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved funding to continue the residence’s existing program for at least a year rather than switching to a different program run by a different vendor. That latter, rejected alternative had been recommended by county staff, much to the consternation of Casa del Mural advocates and clients. The decision-made at the Tuesday, June 26 meeting-followed a board vote to delay a decision regarding where it would turn for money to replace a sunsetting state fund that currently helps offset the cost of providing emergency medical services to uninsured or underinsured patients.
Facing a departmental shortfall of $1.2 million for the 2007-08 fiscal year, the county’s Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services (ADMHS) Department has been pressured to cut costs. One such solution was switching providers at Casa del Mural, a county-funded residence for 12 seriously mentally ill people, from the contracted Work Training Programs (WTP) to a new service that would have been provided by a variety of programs under the Santa Barbara Supportive Housing Initiative Act (SHIA). The switch would have saved $530,000 annually.
Interim ADMHS Director Doug Barton (pictured above) admitted the “difficult” choice boiled down to the cash flow, which didn’t sit well with the supervisors. “The fact of the matter is it’s come out of trying to save money,” said 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal. But Barton also said the SHIA program was designed to serve the most mentally ill people in society and offered many of the same benefits that residents were already receiving. Currently, SHIA staff have the capacity in the South County to accommodate 12 more clients at no additional cost.
Both options would have allowed the 12 clients the “highest level of care we have in the community,” Barton said. The services would be similar, although with some differences. One such difference-an important one in the eyes of the supervisors-is that the alternative program would have lacked 24-hour on-site supervision, which WTP provides. “It seems like somebody needs to be there 24 hours a day,” said 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray, who visited the residence on the county’s Calle Real campus last Friday with 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf.
Residents and advocates of Casa del Mural lobbied to keep the existing program, lauding the services it provided in helping residents get on their feet. “You can’t afford, from a humane point of view, to end it,” said Casa del Mural advocate Bob Quinn, who pointed out there are only 36 beds in the entire county like those at the residence.
The board will hear a progress report on the system in December, with testimony from clients and staff at the facility factoring into the supervisors’ eventual decision on whether to continue the program.
Also at its Tuesday meeting, the board held off on adding a ballot measure for a tax increase to offset the impending loss of state funding that helps pay for emergency and trauma care at area hospitals. The supervisors instead chose to wait until the fall, when it’s expected they’ll have a firmer grasp on the county’s financial outlook. The Maddy Emergency Medical Services Fund was coming to an end last year, and the State Legislature agreed to extend it to 2009 with the assumption that by then the county would find alternate funding. Hospitals get roughly $1.6 million a year from the Maddy Fund to help pay for emergency medical services they provide but for which they are otherwise uncompensated. The amount of revenue needed to cover the costs hospitals incur is more than $8 million a year, but the supervisors did not advocate using a tax to pay for some of it. Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone presented a laundry list of 11 major issues facing the county and its future budgets that were “unavoidable.” The board asked County Executive Officer Mike Brown for a comprehensive report on the impacts of all of these issues by September. “We are really good at spending money and not so good at raising money,” said Gray, who also asked county staff for five ways the county could generate revenue without taxing.