Sonoma County’s Family Justice Center could close amid budget crunch
The Family Justice Center, a central hub of services for victims of domestic violence and elder abuse, is facing the threat of closure as Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch identifies up to $2.7 million in budget cuts to meet demands from the county administrator’s office.
The District Attorney’s Office is just one of more than two dozen county agencies asked to propose reductions as county government seeks to cut an estimated $50 million from its budget in anticipation of a sharp decline in tax revenues resulting from the pandemic-driven recession.
Ravitch, who oversees a department with a $31 million budget, has been tasked with cutting spending by about 8%. She said she is reluctantly proposing to cut funding for the Family Justice Center in order to keep prosecutors in the courtrooms, offering up a well-respected program as a sacrifice to meet the county’s budget targets. Ravitch said she could save the equivalent of two attorney positions by ending the District Attorney’s Office role as fiscal manager of the center, which is also staffed by local law enforcement agencies and victim service organizations.
“It’s very likely that the Family Justice Center is going to close,” Ravitch said. “It’s not an essential service, even though I consider it essential. My office’s essential work is to prosecute crimes.”
The Family Justice Center opened in August 2011 as a central place where victims of domestic abuse and other types of community violence could seek criminal charges against perpetrators while also receiving other services, such as counseling, legal aid, immigration assistance and crisis intervention support. The center is housed in a building at the northern end of the county complex on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. Most of its work is funded by other organizations and grants.
About 50 people work out of the Family Justice Center, including employees from the Council on Aging, the YWCA, Catholic Charities, Legal Aid and Verity, a nonprofit providing counseling and other support for sexual assault and abuse survivors, according to the organization’s website. The Santa Rosa Police Department and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office house their domestic violence units at the center.
The District Attorney’s Office’s current $31 million budget includes about $427,000 to pay for an executive director, administrative coordinator and 80% of pay for a receptionist at the Family Justice Center. The executive director position has been unfilled since Wes Winter left the job in January 2019 to take a position in Southern California.
The pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders have caused massive job losses and shut down Sonoma County’s hospitality-driven industries, drying up key sources of tax revenue for county government agencies. The full scope of those economic impacts are not yet known.
Ravitch acknowledged the annual budget process is part political dance. But she said that raising the possibility of closing the center was an authentic move because her office has little other than staff positions to cut. She questioned why county leaders each year ask departments to draw up potential cuts when they often manage to find the money to keep programs in the end.
“Every year I’m faced with a scenario whereby I’m asked to put together a budget with extensive cuts only to be told we found the money,” Ravitch said. “It’s an exhausting exercise that puts anxiety in everyone’s mind.”
Ravitch said that while she respects the difficult task at hand and the real fiscal challenges caused by the pandemic, she called out what she views as a lack of leadership from the Board of Supervisors.
“I’m frustrated I’m not being given more direction as I prepare for these astronomical budget cuts,” Ravitch said.
Supervisor Susan Gorin, who chairs the board, cautioned against underestimating the fiscal toll of the pandemic shutdowns on the county’s budget. She said the board “is very supportive of the Family Justice Center and its mission,” but they are facing tough decisions, including what should be considered an essential service.
“We need to get that right, so it’s entirely possible that we may have to think about some furloughs or concessions from employees,” Gorin said.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said that although she believes the county administrator must prepare agencies for the potential fiscal situation, she believes it was “unfair” to ask for across-the-board cuts without weighing the impacts. Zane was the sole supervisor to vote against a hiring freeze this week, a move she felt was too arbitrary at a time when the county may need more public health workers to respond to the pandemic.