PD Editorial: Give local plan for Sonoma Developmental Center a chance

It’s unfortunate that some state officials and legislators seem to have their minds made up about the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center.|

It’s unfortunate that some state officials and legislators seem to have their minds made up about the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center and what is best for the 400 or so remaining residents there.

The state Legislative Analyst’s Office recently issued a report recommending that the Sonoma center as well as a similar facility in Costa Mesa be shut down within 10 years. Meanwhile, state Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Riverside County, has introduced a bill, SB 639, that calls for shuttering both facilities in three years.

The justification in both cases is clear - money.

Even if the future of the center should be based solely on finances - a morally indefensible position, particularly for a state that has a history of failing in its care for those most vulnerable, particularly those with mental illness - the numbers on which these findings are based border on fiction.

Those supporting closure argue the cost of caring of the residents of the Sonoma Developmental Center is $515,000 a year, an absurdly high figure that’s more a reflection of the fact that the population of the state’s centers has been allowed to shrink - now standing at 1 percent of what it once was some 40 years ago - while the size of the campuses has remained intact as buildings have fallen into great disrepair.

Nobody is arguing that the nearly 1,000-acre Sonoma Developmental Center should remain unchanged. At the same time, applying the costs of maintaining these campuses to the relative few who remain provides a distorted picture of what the direct costs of caring for these severely developmentally disabled residents really is.

At the other extreme, Stone justifies his bill arguing that the annual cost of care in community-based facilities is $17,000 per resident. This is an equally dubious figure. Even the Legislative Analyst’s Office contends the per-resident cost ranges from $76,000 a year for basic residential care to $300,000 for supported living services.

What this points out, more than anything, is that state officials really don’t have a clear picture of what the direct cost of caring for the remaining 400 residents at Sonoma Developmental Center is, individuals who, the Legislative Analyst’s Office acknowledges, “are more likely to have behaviors or medical needs that can be more challenging to serve in the community.”

Nor do state officials know how these individuals would fare if and when they are transferred to community-based facilities.

Which is why state legislators need to reject SB 639 and put on hold any more talk about closing the centers until they get a clear picture of what the situation is at Sonoma Developmental Center - and what it can be.

Toward that end, we encourage state leaders to work with a Sonoma County-based group of political leaders, environmental and nonprofit groups and family members of residents at the Sonoma Developmental Center to find a more sensible outcome.

The coalition, headed by Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, is hoping to develop a community-inspired master plan for the center that would include continued on-site care for residents, while opening up some of the historic structures to community groups, possibly including Santa Rosa Junior College. The plan also calls for continued care for the open spare areas in and around the massive SDC property.

The coalition is hoping to use the Presidio Trust, the agency created to save the Presidio in San Francisco from development, as a model for how this can be done.

It’s a plan that deserves time to be honed and deserves to be heard. (The coalition is inviting the community to participate in this process by attending a workshop at the Vintage House in Sonoma on May 2).

If successful, this process promises significant cost savings for the state along with local support for a plan that preservates a vital community service, historic structures and a critical piece of open space. It’s a far better gamble than putting these vulnerable individuals out in the community and closing this facility without any real idea of whether better options exist. They do.

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