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Passionate pleas to save Sonoma Developmental Center

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Family members, some choked up with emotion, on Saturday denounced efforts to close the Sonoma Developmental Center and transfer their disabled loved ones to community-care programs.

More than 200 people gathered Saturday to urge state officials to fight recently proposed legislation to close the state-run facility in Eldridge, near Glen Ellen. Speakers also sought support for the center during Gov. Jerry Brown’s upcoming budget process and in efforts to make sure the federal government doesn’t cut funding.

Speakers repeatedly contended that their brothers, sisters and children can’t survive without the expert and considerate care that they now receive at the center.

“Closing Sonoma Developmental Center will be a death sentence for the population,” said Norm Garcia of San Ramon, who has a sister there.

The 123-year-old center is home to more than 400 clients with severe mental and developmental disabilities.

Saturday’s event, hosted by Sonoma’s Parent Hospital Association, drew three elected officials and representatives for four more. Those in attendance included Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and state Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa. Also in attendance was Santi Rogers, director of the state Department of Developmental Services.

Many who spoke Saturday have been advocating for decades on behalf of their relatives. A few recognized Rogers from the mid-1980s when he served as director at the Sonoma center.

In February the state Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended closing within a decade both the Sonoma center and the Fairview Developmental Center in Orange County. Additionally, state Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Murrieta, has introduced legislation calling for the shutdown of the two centers to occur no later than Dec. 31, 2018.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office proposal came as part of a review of the governor’s proposed 2015-16 budget for human services agencies. Brown is seeking $515 million for the state’s three developmental centers, which amounts to an 8.5 percent funding decrease over the prior fiscal year.

The analyst’s office estimated that the average yearly cost of treating the 1,100 people who reside in the remaining developmental centers was $515,000 each. As well, it cited the closure in the past decade of developmental centers in San Jose and Pomona as success stories to emulate.

An estimated 288,137 disabled Californians will be treated in community care settings by 2016.

On Saturday, both elected officials and relatives decried the state recommendation, saying it was focused on dollars rather than on protecting the most vulnerable and needy clients in the state’s care. And they insisted that not all clients would successfully make the transition to community care.

On another front, both legislators and leaders of the parents association expressed optimism that they can defeat legislation proposing to close the center.

Nonetheless, Kathleen Miller, the association’s president, cautioned the audience that change is on its way for the center. It may be neither welcome nor sought, she said, “but it’s coming just the same.”

Gorin said she is leading a coalition of local government agencies and community groups in efforts to preserve the center, which is Sonoma Valley’s largest employer with 1,200 staff members. The group also is looking at ways to ensure that the 1,600-acre site is put to its best use.

Some speakers Saturday suggested the center can best survive by adding new programs and services for the needy.

“We need to reframe the debate from closure to transformation,” said John McCaull of the Sonoma Land Trust. He announced a May 2 meeting at the Vintage House in Sonoma where the land trust and other groups will begin an 18-month public process to develop a vision and plan for the center’s future.

Miller encouraged her fellow members to take part in that process but also to keep working to put “a real safety net in place for those who need it most.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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