The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but at this Monday’s budget deliberations, mental health advocates got county supervisor Peter Adam’s goat instead. “I’m getting a little frustrated with this community,” declared Adam, who chairs board meetings this year. “We do one thing and this community is back in two seconds looking for another need.” He objected to what he described as the advocates’ “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” attitude. “I’m getting a little bit close to full up here,” he said.
On the table was the $109 million budget proposed for the Department of Behavioral Wellness in the upcoming year. Of special concern to supervisors, departmental brass, and the advocate community were a couple of ominous asterisks. The $2 billion “No Place Like Home” bond proposed by the state legislature — passed to address some of the more acute pockets of homelessness throughout the state — threatens to strip as much as $1.4 million in annual state Mental Health and Substance Abuse (MHSA) funds from the department.
“This is a serious threat,” declared Behavioral Wellness Czar Alice Gleghorn. Although the No Place Like Home program will underwrite local initiatives to address homelessness — a problem intertwined with mental health and drug abuse — Gleghorn said there’s no guarantee Santa Barbara County would or could get a commensurate amount back in homeless grants. Beyond that, Gleghorn cautioned the supervisors that the statewide pot of gold from which the MHSA funds are drawn is considerably lighter than projected.
On a more optimistic note, the department is estimating it will spend roughly half as much hospitalizing Santa Barbara’s acutely mentally ill in out-of-county facilities as it did last year. Gleghorn said she’s budgeting an additional $1.6 million on such out-of-county expenses, bringing the total to $6.3 million; last year, the department spent $7 million. Gleghorn expressed hope that new short-term housing programs will obviate some of the need for psychiatric hospitalizations. The county’s facility is licensed for only 16 beds and has been overwhelmed by demand for at least 30 years.
Mental health advocates acknowledged strides made by Behavioral Wellness in the past year, but wasted little time advocating for expanded housing options. Families ACT! strongly urged the supervisors to entice Psynergy — a private company providing mental health care and housing — to come to Santa Barbara County and in the meantime further expand the number of acute care beds available. Gleghorn noted that a 90-bed facility would soon open up in Santa Maria, 35 spaces of which would be set aside for Behavioral Wellness clients.
Maureen Earl, an advocate with CLUE (Citizens and Laity United for Social Justice) strongly urged the supervisors to reduce the number of mentally ill incarcerated in County Jail. She expressed regret that Behavioral Wellness missed the deadline to apply for a grant that would help do just that; 270 communities throughout the country, she noted, have received such grants; Santa Barbara should be one. Gleghorn replied those grants help cover the costs of focusing disparate community factions on a united objective, not the actual programs required to treat the mentally ill for whom criminal behavior is a manifestation of their illness.
Little was said about the $606,000 the county has earmarked to launch a pilot Laura’s Law program, in which service-resistant mentally ill are taken before a judge and ordered to follow their treatment protocols. Supervisors Dorren Farr, Janet Wolf, and Salud Carbajal urged Gleghorn to come back as soon as possible with a developed capital projects plan to build new housing for the mentally ill, taking advantage of the county’s excellent credit rating and large inventory of undeveloped land. (Such a proposal should be forthcoming sometime this August, Gleghorn said.) Supervisor Janet Wolf, in particular, is pushing the supervisors to create an account now — and fund it — to build new mental health housing. Typically such decisions require a super-majority of four votes, but in the context of budget deliberations, a three-voter majority is all that’s required.
Business advocate Andy Caldwell expressed concern with how much money was being spent by county Social Services and Behavioral Wellness and questioned whether anyone, in fact, ever got “well.” Longtime mental health advocate Debbie McCoy all but raced to the podium to describe how her daughter, severely mentally ill, has thrived to such an extent in a Psynergy treatment facility that she’s now almost ready to come home to Santa Barbara. McCoy sang Psynergy’s praises exhorting the supervisors to “entice them with everything you can think of to bring them here.”