Sonoma County nonprofits that provide mental health and substance abuse services may have dodged a bullet this fiscal year, but come June many fear they may be facing a cannonball.
With strong direction from some members of the Board of Supervisors, county officials are now looking for ways to backfill a $1.8 million deficit in the Behavioral Health Division. While the move eliminates the need for cuts to nonprofits, next year’s Behavioral Health deficit could be as high as $19 million.
In a letter sent to nonprofits late this week, county health services director Barbie Robinson relayed the “good news” but warned that “challenging, and at times, painful dialogue” lies ahead.
“At this time, with the probable backfill in funds, we hope to mitigate all contract reductions for FY 17-18,” Robinson wrote, referring to the fiscal year that ends June 30. “Conversely, even with this prospective good news, this one-time backfill does not solve for our current $16-$19 million projected budget deficit in FY 18-19.”
The sheer magnitude of next year’s projected deficit has some mental health advocates fearing a major blow to the county’s mental health safety net. It comes at a time when some residents are facing unprecedented emotional and psychological challenges brought on by last year’s fires, widespread worries over gun violence and the ongoing fallout from the nation’s opioid epidemic.
“In the long run it’s going to cost the county more money taking care of things on the criminal justice side,” said Robin Bowen, executive director of Child Parent Institute, or CPI. “The health of our community, that’s the biggest loser in this whole struggle.”
Bowen’s organization was one of nearly 50 “community partners” that had been asked to plan for significant cuts to their current budgets, cuts that would have left some service providers very little funds to finish out the last three months of the current fiscal year.
CPI was asked to cut its budget by 35 percent, or $338,000. The cut would have jeopardized perinatal mental health services for 21 to 28 of the 60 to 80 moms the nonprofit serves and dramatically reduced the number of abused and neglected children CPI helps with counseling and treatment, from 110 to 70.
The move to backfill Behavioral Health’s current deficit is supported by county supervisors, who agree the cuts were proposed too late in the year. If implemented, the cuts would likely have forced some nonprofits to lay off staff and even shutter programs altogether, they said.
“We can’t unravel this mental health safety net that we’ve created over the years,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, adding that nonprofits “need some time” to plan for such cuts.
“It’s hard enough to recruit good staff with 3 percent unemployment and zero percent housing,” she said. “How in the heck are they ever going to find those people again if we decimate those programs?”
But next year, the cuts could be even bigger.
In a Board of Supervisors meeting this week, Robinson laid out in sobering detail years of “poor fiscal forecasting, the lack of internal controls and operational inefficiencies” that have led to perennial budget deficits.
Late last year, the division faced an $11 million shortfall, but Robinson was able to reduce the gap by eliminating vacant positions, part-time workers and through the use of one-time state funds and fund balances from several mental health funding streams.