Sonoma County officials set to spend first $13 million in Measure O funds on mental health services
Sonoma County officials are set to spend over $13 million raised by a new countywide sales tax for mental health services on bolstering existing psychiatric care programs as part of an effort to combat chronic homelessness in the region.
The money comes from Measure O, a quarter-cent sales tax voters approved by an over two-thirds majority last November. It’s expected to raise around $25 million a year over 10 years for mental health services that officials say have long gone underfunded.
A committee led by Sonoma County supervisors James Gore and Chris Coursey is in charge of recommending how to allocate the funds. The Board of Supervisors earlier this month approved the first $13 million based on the committee’s suggestions as part of its 2021-22 budget. The remaining nearly $12 million is set to be authorized later this year.
The two supervisors said the money will help boost mental health programs that have over the years seen steep reductions in state and federal funding.
“Funds have been cut, and the need has become greater,” Coursey said. “We’re not unique that we have needs greater than we have resources. What I hope to see out of this is better mental health in our community. And $25 million a year should result in that.”
The $13 million in new revenue raises the county’s budget for behavioral health services by 8% to $120 million, most of which will still come from the state and federal government.
Around $3 million from the first round of Measure O spending will go toward residential care services for those with mental health issues, including $1.5 million for a psychiatric health facility at the former Valley of the Moon Children's Center at the Los Guilicos complex east of Santa Rosa. The 16-bed center, which will be operated by Crestwood Behavioral Health and could be up and running as soon as December, will substantially increase treatment options for those needing critical care.
“In this area and across the state, there’s a shortage of psychiatric hospital beds,” said Bill Carter, director of the behavioral health division of the county health department. “There’s been a remarkable reduction over the past decade or so.”
Currently, local patients often have to endure long wait times to receive mental health treatment after being admitted to an emergency room or the county’s crisis stabilization unit, where people are only supposed to stay for 24 hours. The new psychiatric facility will give the county a dedicated option for treating patients and helping them transition to housing, while also making it easier to draw federal funds to help pay for care.
Another $7.4 million will be used on urgent psychiatric services, including the crisis stabilization unit and increasing inpatient hospital care for those on involuntary holds. The other $3 million will be spent on mental health care at children’s shelters, behavioral treatment for homeless people and those with substance abuse issues, and services for supportive housing.
Supervisors plan to use the remaining $12 million in sales tax revenue this year on potential new programs, such as mental health counseling at schools or trained mobile crisis teams to respond to non-violent mental health 911 calls.
Gore said he and Coursey are working with local cities, including Santa Rosa and Petaluma, who have expressed interest in launching civilian mobile crisis teams modeled on the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Oregon. He also hopes to collaborate with local municipalities to better manage and clear homeless encampments across the county.
“The 40-year-old system of playing whack-a-mole, it’s not only not working, it’s exacerbating the problem, and it’s disrespectful to the solutions that are needed,” Supervisor Gore said.
The Measure O money comes amid a raft of county spending on homelessness during the pandemic. One of the largest expenditures is the $27 million the county expects to spend over two years to buy, renovate and operate the Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa and the Sebastopol Inn as homeless housing. The state’s Project Homekey grant program is expected to cover $16 million of the total cost.
The county has also relied on state and federal funds to rent out hotel rooms for homeless people at high-risk for COVID-19, including spending $3.2 million for rooms at the Windsor Holiday Inn.
Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts, a staunch supporter of Measure O, said buying and renting hotels, including his city’s temporary shelter at the Sandman Hotel, have been central to the area’s recent progress on homelessness.
“That cost a lot of money, but we were able to whittle away a meaningful amount of our homeless numbers,” Tibbetts said.
The number of people living on the streets or in temporary shelter in Sonoma County dropped 7% last year to roughly 2,700, according to the county’s annual census.
Even more money is on way, with $12 billion in the state’s latest budget set aside for homeless aid, including $1 billion in each of the next two years for direct payments to local governments. That’s on top of the estimated $96 million Sonoma County recently received from the federal stimulus bill passed in March, which could be used in part to address homelessness.
Officials said Measure O revenues could be key in ensuring any new programs that come out of the one-time cash infusions remain funded into the future. For instance, the county could opt to buy properties for supportive housing with state or federal money and use Measure O to pay for ongoing wraparound services.
“The issue there is that with (only) one-time funding, you can’t build services or programs that are sustained,” Carter said. “And Measure O is a way to do that.”
You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at email@example.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.
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