California health secretary defends closure plan for Sonoma Developmental Center
SACRAMENTO — California’s health and human services secretary on Wednesday defended the state’s plan to close the Sonoma Developmental Center by 2018, a date that critics, including family members of some of the 400 residents, say does not allow enough time to complete the process and ensure the welfare of those who will be displaced.
Diana Dooley acknowledged what she referred to as a “short time frame” for closing the Eldridge facility. But she said financial pressures and federal mandates related to caring for the disabled outside of institutionalized settings are forcing the state to act more quickly than normal. It typically takes the state five years or more to close a developmental center.
“We’re running out of money,” Dooley said, referring to the planned end of federal funds supporting the Sonoma center.
Dooley’s comments were the first she has made publicly on the closure plan since it was submitted to the Legislature earlier this month, and they came during a break in a meeting of a developmental center task force Wednesday in Sacramento.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget set the goal of shutting the Sonoma center by 2018 as the state moves toward operating a limited number of smaller safety-net and crisis residential services. Critics contend the state plan does not allow enough time to manage the shutdown and also map out the longer-term care of developmental center residents.
The state also is proposing to close the two other remaining developmental centers, one in Orange County and the other in Porterville, by 2021.
Dooley said the state is having to move more quickly in Sonoma’s case because federal funding for the facility is scheduled to run out in July 2017, unless the state succeeds in getting an extension.
“We’ve got to responsibly transition to environments of care that are less costly than the maintenance of this infrastructure at Sonoma. That’s the budget reason,” she said.
The $515 million budget approved this summer for the state’s remaining development centers represented an 8.5 percent funding decrease over the prior fiscal year. That amount included $295 million from the state’s general fund.
The process of closing the Sonoma center will have to continue amid a significant leadership change. Santi Rogers, director of the state’s Developmental Services agency, announced at Wednesday’s meeting that he is retiring. Dooley said his departure will not affect the timeline for Sonoma’s closure.
Critics of the plan remain skeptical the state can meet the 2018 deadline and do so without compromising care for the people who live at the Sonoma center, in some cases for decades.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, on Wednesday reiterated his concerns that the closure plan emphasizes financial concerns over the care needs of Sonoma residents.
“An arbitrary deadline based on dollars should not be the main priority,” he said.
Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin echoed that point, calling the three-year timeline for closing the Sonoma center “unacceptable.”
Gorin is leading a local coalition that has launched an intensive review of potential uses for nearly 1,000 acres of prime real estate and the buildings that make up the center, should the state close the facility. The group’s stated mission is to preserve as much open space as possible in the transition while maintaining some level of service on-site for disabled clients.