Sonoma County mental health director Michael Kennedy to be replaced as division faces spending cuts

The director of the county’s behavioral health division is being replaced after months of wrangling over staff and service cuts in his division.|

Sonoma County plans to replace its mental health and substance abuse services director, Michael Kennedy, who went on paid leave this week as part of a major administrative shakeup just days after his division narrowly avoided significant layoffs while still bracing for large cuts in county-funded outpatient services.

Kennedy has been on leave since Monday and Dr. Michael Kozart, the Health Services department’s medical director and lead psychiatrist, has stepped in to fill the role on a temporary basis, according to Christina Cramer, the county’s personnel director. Kennedy could not be reached for comment Thursday. County officials would not elaborate on the circumstances of his job status, including whether the leave was ordered or voluntary, or whether he was set to return to work in a different post.

“I can tell you he’s on leave,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a longtime advocate for county mental health services.

Kennedy, whose base salary is $169,975, has been the division manager of behavioral health services since 2008. He was previously a section manager of the division from 2001 to 2008.

His leave came less than a week after the county backed off a controversial proposal to dramatically reduce its mental health and substance abuse staff by nearly 32 positions to partly close a $2.6 million budget gap.

The plan was widely criticized by many in the local mental health community who said such cuts were poorly timed in the face of the ongoing challenges stemming from last year’s devastating fires.

The extent of the budget shortfall last year was pegged at $11 million before the elimination of about 40 temporary jobs in the division. County officials have blamed the gap largely on a change in the way the state provides certain funds for mental health services, saying other counties faced similar challenges.

Barbie Robinson, the county’s director of health services and Kennedy’s boss, earlier this year said “imprecise” forecasting and revenue projections for federal Medicaid dollars were behind the shortfall. She did not call out Kennedy in her comments, but budgeting for the division was under his oversight.

Robinson on Thursday declined to comment on Kennedy’s leave but indicated he would not be returning to his post. She said Kozart was filling in until an “interim behavioral health division director” is found.

Robinson said an interim director is being sought because Kozart has too many other responsibilities as medical director to fill in for an extended period of time. She said the county is seeking an interim director because for Kennedy “is still in his position.”

Last week Robinson shelved the plan for layoffs after the county was granted a one-time distribution of $2 million in state substance abuse funds.

Unless additional funding is secured, Robinson is expected to seek formal approval for cuts to about 47 provider contracts. Those cuts would save the county $1.6 million it pays for Medi-Cal patients.

But it would also mean a loss of funds the federal government contributes to Medi-Cal, the state’s version of the Medicaid program. Several local nonprofit service providers have already been asked to brace for major cuts to their current annual budgets. The cuts could be a severe blow to community-based behavioral health services, said Robin Bowen, executive director of Child Parent Institute, a Sonoma County-based parent education and children’s mental health agency.

Bowen, whose organization is one of the programs facing budget cuts, said Kennedy has been an “asset to the community” and has worked hard to bolster the role of local nonprofits in providing mental health services at a lower cost than the county.

“I feel badly for him,” Bowen said. “It’s an unfortunate situation and everyone is working their hardest to try to come to some sort of resolution.”

Mary-Frances Walsh, executive director of the Sonoma County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she was saddened by the news about Kennedy.

Walsh, whose organization is facing cuts, said Kennedy had a deep understanding of the importance of families in caring for those with mental illness.

“When families are involved, there’s a much higher probability that the individual is going to be looked after,” she said.

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