Sonoma County poised to cut up to 40 mental health jobs, reduce funding for services

Even as thousands of local residents continue to deal with the emotional and psychological scars caused by last year’s devastating fires, Sonoma County is planning multi-million budget cuts that would slash both county staff rolls and funding to nonprofits that provide mental health and drug abuse services.

Barbie Robinson, the county’s director of health services, said her department is looking at possibly eliminating up to 40 staff positions. This is on top of a previously announced move to eliminate about 36 behavioral health staff vacancies and cut ties with the temporary workers that have been used to fill some of those jobs, Robinson said this week.

The department, which provides both mental health and substance-use disorder services, is facing a budget shortfall of $8.5 million. Robinson said the shortfall is primarily caused by “imprecise” forecasting and revenue projections for federal Medicaid dollars.

She said the county was already facing the prospect of layoffs before the fires struck last October. The proposed cuts couldn’t come at a worse time, she said.

“The fires have exacerbated the need for services in the community,” Robinson said. “We recognize that the timing of this has an impact.”

On Monday, county behavioral health officials met representatives of Service Employees’ International Union, Local 1021, to discuss the potential job cuts and elimination of vacant positions. The meeting, which was held in a county health services administration building on Chanate Road, was the first meeting on the matter between SEIU and county officials, according to a union member attending the meeting.

Robinson said a similar meeting with Engineers and Scientists of California, Local 20, which also represents county behavioral health staff, took place last week. The number of potential layoffs is a significant share of the 200 behavioral health staff that are represented by both SEIU and Engineers and Scientists of California. Jason Klumb, area director for SEIU 1021, said the county has yet to identify specific positions being considered for elimination. SEIU represents nurse practitioners, licensed vocational nurses, psychiatric nurses and office assistants, while ESC represents clinicians.

Klumb said the timing of the planned cuts is poor in the extreme.

“The trauma from the fires has reached far and wide and this is not the time to cut mental health services,” Klumb said. “I would say any cuts in that department are significant and would be felt in the community.”

Robinson said the county has received some federal dollars to do crisis counseling for fire survivors, but some program cuts and staff reductions will be necessary.

When the county announced late last year that it was planning to scale back on temporary staff used to fill vacancies in behavioral health jobs, it was facing an $11 million deficit. Immediate cuts brought the deficit down to $8.5 million.

The county’s total behavioral health services budget is about $93 million, about $40 million of which is funding for community partners, Robinson said. State and federal money accounts for most of the county’s overall spending on health services.

County officials also are proposing funding cuts to contracts with “community partners,” often nonprofit organizations that provide such things as suicide prevention counseling, wellness programs, peer support and recovery services, supportive housing, jail diversion programs and therapy services.

The county is surveying all the nonprofit programs to see how efficiently funds are being spent.

County personnel officials are compiling a list of positions for possible layoffs, taking into account such things as employee seniority, Robinson said.

“We want to share that with the unions, we want to talk to staff that are directly impacted by it,” she said.

Robinson said none of the contracts with community partners would be eliminated altogether, but rather reductions to a number of the contracts would be made.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a longtime advocate of mental health services, said she feared the cuts would unravel both county and community-based services that have taken years to put in place.

“I don’t think now is the time to cut back on those services,” Zane said. “It’s going to be up to the board whether we can find a creative way to fill that gap.”

She said the fires continue to take a toll on many residents.

“Every single day I go out, somebody wants to tell me their story about the fires,” she said.

But she said she supported Robinson’s efforts to “right-size” the behavioral health department and its budget. She said examining contracts with local nonprofits was key.

“While some of the contractors have been exceptional, there are others that are under-performing,” she said, adding that the county should “bear some significant blame” for not scrutinizing contracts with community partners more closely.

“I just think we have to find some ways to backfill the department, given the current needs of the community,” Zane said.

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