Sonoma County supervisors exploring sales tax hike for mental health services
A local poll showing strong public support for mental health funding could bring a proposed sales tax increase to Sonoma County voters in March and ease pressure on a county department wracked by years of budgetary mismanagement.
Since 2014, the Department of Health Services has seen deficits totaling $33 million, the result of years of bad budgeting detailed most recently in a scathing Civil Grand Jury report.
The report cites, among other things, hopeful but inaccurate budget forecasting, lack of appropriate training, critical failures in compliance oversight and leadership’s failure to understand complex, government finance systems.
County officials, including department Director Barbie Robinson, agreed with most of the findings. Sonoma County supervisors approved their response to the report Tuesday.
But they also said state and federal governments don’t do enough to fund mental health. The grand jury report noted the same.
With ongoing lobbying efforts bearing little fruit, and proposed cuts to staff or services drawing sharp criticism, supervisors have taken to filling funding gaps with general fund dollars. But the results of a recent county-funded poll of Sonoma County voters offer another path forward — a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would generate $23 million for mental health services in Sonoma County.
The idea earned “well over 70%” support in recent polling conducted by Oakland-based EMC Research, Supervisor Chairman David Rabbitt said in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview. That level of support means such a measure is a strong favorite to pass in an election requiring two-thirds voter support. It also means Sonoma County supervisors are unlikely to waste any time.
The ballot question has been on the county’s radar for months, and was included in the Department of Health Services summary in the 2019-20 proposed budget.
But officials had always circled November 2020. That could change.
“With the numbers (we) got back, (we) may move it up,” Rabbitt said. “We would want to make a decision pretty quickly.”
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has shown strong support for mental health services in the county, committing $15.3 million to keep priority behavioral health programs afloat in the past two years.
On Tuesday, the board reinstated funding for a mental health program targeting parents.
Robinson said she’s confident the board would step up again if necessary.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she knows what she would do.
“I’m going to do what I’ve been doing the last couple of years: Say to the county administrator, ‘We can’t afford not to have certain county programs,’ ” Zane said.
While supervisors agreed with many of the negative findings in the grand jury report, Rabbitt said the department is on better footing today.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Rabbitt thanked Robinson and Department of Health Services staff for “turning the ship around, and pointing us in the right direction.”
The metaphor is apt, as the unsparing grand jury report is titled “A Perfect Storm.”
The report focuses on a budget time frame that began 11 months after Robinson was appointed interim director of the department, but Robinson said by that time the budget had already been developed.