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Sonoma County backs off proposed mental health job cuts

Sonoma County is shelving a controversial proposal to dramatically reduce its mental health and substance abuse staff by tapping into ?$2 million in state funds, saving more than 30 jobs many in the local mental health community say are needed to address the ongoing psychological and emotional impact of last year’s devastating fires.

In a letter Tuesday to county health staff, Barbie Robinson, director of county health services, said the funds from state’s substance abuse prevention and treatment program would give the county more time to look at alternative solutions to address future shortfalls.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to have these resources because we need them,” Robinson said, adding that the budget shortfalls threaten to affect those in Sonoma County with the most need, such as women in substance use recovery.

“I’ve spent my entire career championing services for the most vulnerable,” she said.

The Behavioral Health Division’s most recent layoff proposal called for the elimination of nearly 32 full-time positions, as well as reductions in county contracts with “community partners,” nonprofits that provide a significant share of local mental health and substance use disorder services.

Robinson said the proposed layoffs and contract reductions would have resulted in a savings of $2.6 million, the remaining shortfall from a budget gap that at one time late last year was estimated to be $11 million.

A number of changes, including the elimination of about 36 behavioral health staff vacancies, the elimination of overtime and extra help, a hiring freeze and the use of reserve funds brought the budget gap down to $2.6 million.

Robinson said while the $2 million in state funds would eliminate the need for layoffs, unless additional funding is obtained, she would propose cuts to about 47 provider contracts. She said she continues to spend long hours trying to identify new sources of revenue.

The funds tapped by the county are actually “reallocated dollars” that were not used by other county jurisdictions, she said.

“Some counties didn’t spend the money but we got the opportunity to use it,” she said. “It gives us time in terms of trying to think of alternative strategies. It will get us through the end of the fiscal year.”

Robinson said she plans to ”engage staff” in trying to figure out how to address future budget shortfalls.

The county’s decision to back off proposed layoffs was welcome news to mental health staff.

Todd Hart, who works at the county’s crisis stabilization unit in Santa Rosa assessing mental health clients, said he was “pleasantly surprised” to receive Robinson’s letter to staff. But he said come summer, the county will be facing another revenue shortfall.

Hart, who is represented by Engineers and Scientists of California, Local 20, echoed Robinson’s call for county administrators to work with behavioral health staff to come up with budget solutions. Ten of ESC’s behavioral health clinicians and 11 senior client support staff were slated for elimination, according to a list prepared by the county.

The staff cuts would have also affected psychiatric technicians and senior office assistants represented by Service Employees’ International Union, Local 1021.

“We still have a lot of work to do because they tell us we have a $12 million deficit for fiscal year 2018-19,” Hart said. “This kind of takes us up to the end of June, but we’ll be right back in the same situation.”

The proposed staff cuts were widely criticized by the local mental health community.

Clinicians, nurses, therapists and other staff members have consistently warned the Board of Supervisors in recent weeks of the extreme consequences the cuts would have on some of the county’s neediest and most vulnerable residents, including those dealing with drug and alcohol abuse and the mentally ill.

Staffers said the cuts would hamper a division already stretched too thin and that the community needs mental health resources more than ever because of the lingering effects of the October wildfires.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a longtime advocate of mental health services, said she was “thrilled” the layoffs were off the table. She said she spent “hours and hours” speaking with Robinson about ways to address the budget shortfall.

Zane also hoped the division could still receive even more state funding, perhaps allowing it to restore the temporary staff who were scaled back in December.

“This is not the time to cut mental health services or substance abuse services,” Zane said. “The fire and the trauma of the disaster, they add a whole other layer and element to what’s already, in my opinion, a community that has to fight and scream for every mental health dollar because of the stigma that still remains in our whole society.”

Robinson said in the email she planned to update supervisors no sooner than March 27 about the department’s budget issues.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com..

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