Breathing room for Sonoma Developmental Center advocates

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SACRAMENTO — A bill that sought to close the Sonoma Developmental Center and a similar facility in Southern California on an accelerated timeline was held over Tuesday until next year.

The bill’s author, Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, said he agreed to the delay after he and Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, met Monday to discuss McGuire’s concerns about the proposal.

McGuire is chairman of the Senate’s Human Services Committee, which heard SB 639 Tuesday.

A month ago, McGuire publicly criticized Stone for bringing the bill, saying the Riverside County senator “would be challenged to find Sonoma on a map.”

Stone has said that developmental centers are a waste of taxpayer dollars and the money would be better spent on community-based programs that care for the state’s disabled, such as licensed-care group homes and day programs.

But Tuesday, the two senators took pains to compliment one another on what they now describe as a bipartisan effort to do what’s best for the people who still live at developmental centers, including the more than 400 who reside at the sprawling facility near Glen Ellen.

Stone said McGuire told him in their meeting that he represented the Sonoma area and that he would like to be “part of the solution” addressing the center’s future.

“I said ‘well, let’s make it a two-year bill,’ ” Stone said after Tuesday’s hearing. His bill called for closing the centers no later than 2019.

The bill’s delay does not represent a reprieve for the Sonoma Developmental Center, which is battling declining admissions, licensing problems and calls to shut down to save taxpayer money. But it could buy more time for a local coalition led by the Sonoma Land Trust to develop a plan for the 950-acre property ahead of any actions taken to close the facility.

The group’s first public meeting will be Saturday at the Vintage House in Sonoma.

Interested parties are anxiously awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget revisions in May for further signs of where the state may be headed with respect to the centers. State and federal regulators also could take action in coming weeks that could affect the timeline.

The Sonoma Developmental Center in 2013 voluntarily withdrew federal certification for four units in the intermediate care facility, costing it $13 million annually in federal funding that had to be made up by the state’s general fund. The center currently is fighting to maintain federal certification for the remaining seven units in the facility.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Developmental Services confirmed Tuesday that the agency is still in discussions with federal regulators regarding the decertification.

At Tuesday’s hearing, McGuire said Sonoma County still lacks enough services in the community to handle the needs of the remaining residents at the developmental center should it shut down.

“There is no safety net,” he said.

Tom Chesterman, a Santa Rosa Episcopal priest whose 50-year-old son, Tim, has been a resident at Sonoma since he was a teenager, told the committee that if the facility were closed it would be his son’s “death sentence.”

“He has no language, no hazard assessment, no ability to say, ‘No,’ except by extremely problematical means,” Chesterman said.

About a half-dozen people spoke against Stone’s bill, which was not put to a vote since he voluntarily agreed to hold it over.

Another bill authored by Stone — SB 638 — made it out of the committee with McGuire’s support. The bill would increase funding for community programs that provide services for the state’s disabled population.

Gary Austin, a San Francisco resident whose daughter, Jennifer, resides at the Sonoma Developmental Center, told the committee that Stone’s bills amounted to a “money grab” by seeking to divert money used to care for his daughter and giving those resources to others who are “less disabled.”

Stone denied that allegation, saying he’s not “trying to pull the carpet out from anybody.”

A former pharmacist and county supervisor, Stone said he understands concerns raised about the medically fragile populations at developmental centers, as well as desires expressed by locals to have a say in what happens with the facilities. But the senator said it’s a matter of when, not if, the centers shut down.

“Every year we delay means pouring money into institutions that don’t meet the needs of people who live there, although I’ve heard testimony to the contrary today,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek. moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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