TOO CRAZY FOR WORDS: A couple weeks ago, I unveiled the latest installment of the Theory of Lee, a ridiculous but uncannily accurate formulation that posits that people given the first, last, or middle name “Lee” are far more predisposed to criminal or antisocial behavior.
At least four people were not amused. They were the ones Lee Isaac Bedwell Leeds shot and killed last week with a semiautomatic handgun at his father’s salvage yard outside Santa Maria. One of the victims was Leeds’s father, who owned the junkyard, two worked for the father, and one happened to be looking for the wrong spare part at precisely the wrong time.
Leeds, it turns out, has a long and troubled history with mental illness. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Leeds had reportedly been growing more angry and more suspicious in the past few weeks. He’d just changed medications. If that was a precipitating factor, prosecuting attorney Lynn Cutler isn’t that interested. “I don’t much care why he did it,” said Cutler. “I know he said, ‘I’m going to come down and kill people.’ And that’s just what he did.” Cutler enjoys a reputation as a hard-charging prosecutor, and that very well may help him in his current campaign for judge.
But maybe the rest of us should care about Leeds’s motives. Maybe we need to start addressing mental health as a serious public safety issue. Somehow, Lee Leeds and his hair-trigger rage came very much to mind this week when I got a call from a local mental health provider, freaked out about $8.4 million in impending cuts aimed at eviscerating the mental health services the County of Santa Barbara now offers its adult residents. Of that, more than $6 million will come out of the hides of community-based organizations that now provide many of the housing and other support services essential for keeping those with health issues on an even keel. To be honest, I have no idea if Leeds ever darkened the door of a county mental health clinic. And even with the best of care, he might have gone off precisely as he did. But Santa Barbara County has never provided anything close to the “best of care.” And, with the impending cuts, it will be far less than that.
The problems at the county’s mental health are nothing new. That’s in part because state and local governments have been quick to hack mental health spending whenever the economy tanks. In addition, we’ve had a revolving door of leadership there for way too long. Add to that mismanagement, bad decisions, and exceedingly slow bureaucratic reflexes. It’s so bad, the bean counters have been notably unable to say just how deep a hole they’re actually in. In the course of just a few months, the projected deficits have bounced from $2.4 million to $3.4 million, then to $7 million, then $10 million, and now, most recently, $8.4 million. Lately, a coalition of those community-based organizations that make up the backbone of mental health have been talking about assuming an even greater role than they already play. The calculus is obvious; if nothing else, they can do it cheaper, and maybe even better. Consequently, there’s been a lot of talk about “re-aligning” mental health, fancy talk for privatizing many of the beleaguered department’s key functions. As of March 11, the same community nonprofits that hoped to benefit from this privatization-always a touchy issue with the unions that represent county employees-discovered that county administrators had no real interest in re-alignment. Instead, they would “solve” the problem by slashing budgets. As a result, a major showdown over mental health is brewing; when the matter goes to the county supes on April 15, expect a conflagration of epic proportion.
Expect to hear how if the cuts go through next year, as many as 800 people now receiving care from Santa Barbara County will be tossed off the rolls. Currently, the county provides services to 2,800 adults deemed to have serious and persistent mental health needs. Where will they go? You figure it out. Expect to hear how the county has established a new numerical system to gauge the severity of a person’s mental health needs, and how people who score a 1 or 2 will now be denied the care they seek. You’ll also hear how a program that now keeps 105 formerly homeless people in housing will be eliminated completely. And the suicide telephone number that’s been slated for the Cold Spring Bridge will be permanently unplugged. The Mental Health Association will see its county funding drop from $1 million to $80,000 a year. The list goes on.
Part of the problem is that the state and feds are so slow in compensating the county for services rendered by these community organizations. As a result, the county has to “loan” itself the money to keep everyone afloat; simply the interest on these loans is $800,000 a year. But part of the problem is that when it comes to mental health, Santa Barbara County has been notoriously cheap. The county’s general fund constitutes only 2 percent of the mental health budget. The rest of the money comes from the feds and the state. Throughout California, the mean figure for how much of county budgets go to mental health is 6 percent. But most counties throughout California donate more like 6 percent of their general funds to mental health services. The supervisors will argue that they’re so committed to mental health that they agreed to bail out the department this year by dipping into the reserves to the tune of $7 million. But there are others who will argue that if the county funded the department based on the community’s mental health needs, they wouldn’t have had to “bail out” the department in the first place.
The county, like the state and feds, is cash strapped. Its administrators will argue that, aside from the $32 million they keep stashed in strategic reserves, they don’t have the money. And it will be so convincing that some supervisors might be inclined to purchase Bluetooth telephone headphones for all the mentally ill. No, it won’t actually help. But it will be substantially cheaper than providing real care. And when we see these people ranting to themselves on State Street we can all pretend they’re talking to someone else. Let’s just hope for everyone’s sake they’re not on the line with anyone named Lee.