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Sonoma County to cut testing program tied to special drug court

Gold is more than just a color to the 161 people in Sonoma County’s drug court.

It is the signal for new addicts in the program to report to a squat gray building on Santa Rosa’s Neotomas Avenue and submit to random drug testing.

Depending on the day and color - others are silver, bronze and cobalt - dozens of people show up to participate in a routine that can be a matter of life and death.

“Every day they call the testing line,” said Mike Perry, the chief deputy public defender overseeing the more than 20-year-old drug court. “If they hear their color, they have to go test that day. It’s what’s keeping them clean.”

But the screening that has formed the cornerstone of the rehabilitative court could soon be coming to an end because the county is getting less money than anticipated from federal sources.

The resulting $8.5 million budget shortfall within the county’s behavioral health division is expected to result in the layoff of up to 40 employees who deal with substance abuse disorders, mental health counseling and treatment.

Because the county is not mandated to provide drug testing, the Orenda Center program that handles random screening for drug- and drunken-driving court as well as other programs for drug-addicted mothers are slated for closure, said Barbie Robinson, health services department director.

“This is very difficult, and I recognize the tremendous need,” Robinson said. “These services are near and dear to my heart.”

Notices went out to temporary employees in late December, and permanent staff have been informed they will lose their jobs sometime after the cuts are approved next month by the Board of Supervisors.

Already, weekend testing has been halted. The move comes as opioid addiction in the county is skyrocketing.

“These numbers will go up,” said Wendy Turner, a part-time test worker who has already been laid off. “Sobriety rates are declining.”

Whether another entity will come forward to assume testing duties for the county is unknown. Several nonprofits already involved in substance abuse treatment such as Drug Abuse Alternatives Center could be jeopardized by the cuts as well.

“Testing is a vital tool to help these people function,” said Tracie Parker, one of two full-time testing employees who has been told she will be laid off. “It is definitely needed.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she remains unconvinced eliminating drug testing is the best way to balance the $90 million mental health services budget. Zane said Robinson’s predecessors inaccurately projected federal revenue, leaving the county in a “tough place right now.”

“I support a balanced budget, but I want to see other options,” said Zane, a leading advocate for mental health spending. “We are perennially understaffed and underfunded.”

Health department cuts are not new. In 2010, the county laid off drug and alcohol detoxification workers from the Orenda Center and transfered programs to an outside provider. But drug testing remained in place.

That’s in jeopardy now.

Meanwhile, drug court participants continue to get tested a minimum of two days a week. As they progress, the frequency tapers off until graduation.

Any lapse in testing could prove catastrophic.

“There can’t be a gap,” Perry said. “A gap is unacceptable.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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