Sonoma County to explore ballot measure to bolster mental health and homeless services

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Sonoma County officials have begun exploring the possibility of crafting a ballot measure that would generate tax revenue for mental health and homeless services.

The move comes at a time when the county’s homeless population is again on the rise and as health services officials grapple with significant financial strains that federal and state funds can’t resolve.

“We know there is significant need and that need continues to outpace the funding available,” said Barbie Robinson, the county’s director of health services. “Our goal is to educate the community on what the need is and how to address that need. Part of the strategy is bringing in more revenue.”

The county’s Health Services Department is among the largest local government agencies, with an annual budget of $232 million. The division overseeing mental health and drug abuse treatment accounts for about 40 percent of the spending. Most of the division is funded through Medi-Cal, the state agency that oversees health benefits for low-income and disabled Californians.

Under Robinson’s tenure, which began in February 2017, budget shortfalls have been identified in the behavioral health division, stemming from what Robinson has said were years of inaccurate projections of the funding derived from Medi-Cal.

The longtime behavioral health director, Michael Kennedy, departed last year amid public reports of the budget woes and county wrangling over a set of resulting layoffs and program cuts. Those reductions were mostly avoided as the Board of Supervisors this summer tapped nearly $17 million in one-time funding to backfill the budget hole over a two-year period.

At that time, the board also directed Robinson and officials at the county’s Community Development Commission to explore a possible ballot initiative that could stabilize funding in future years.

On Dec. 21, county officials published a request for proposals seeking a consultant to look at the feasibility of a ballot measure.

Robinson said she hopes to have a report ready by spring or summer on whether local voters would support a ballot measure for funding mental health and homeless services.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, speaking from North Carolina, where she’s visiting family, said she is well aware of the possibility that a number of county residents have grown wary of ballot initiatives seeking new revenue, including tax and bond measures. Since the early 1990s, voters have passed countywide sales tax increases to support open space and farmland preservation, the SMART rail system, the library system and, most recently, park development and maintenance.

But Zane said early investments in mental health and drug abuse treatment can curb the far greater expense of treating afflicted individuals when they are sicker and wind up in jail or local hospitals.

She said 70 percent of people in jail have some sort of mental health issue.

“Right now, people who are mentally ill, if they don’t have sufficient care, end up homeless or end up in jail or in the hospital emergency rooms,” she said.

A ballot measure would potentially improve behavioral health and homeless services programs, treatment and facilities. The objectives, according to the county’s solicitation include: collaboration and partnership with stakeholders; public opinion polling and polling analysis; community outreach and education; feasibility analyses of ballot measure options and a spending plan.

County officials say more resources are needed to address the crisis in homelessness, which this year included a rising overall population, estimated at about 3,000, and an increase in the share of first-time homeless people, up 11 percent, according to the county’s February census.

Officials have attributed that increase to the loss of thousands of homes in the 2017 North Bay wildfires and the regional housing crunch.

This month, the county was highlighted in a federal housing report to Congress as having one of the nation’s largest homeless populations among mostly suburban communities. The county also ranked high for its number of unaccompanied homeless youth — those living in shelters or on the streets — and its chronically homeless people.

Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Development Commission, which coordinates countywide homeless services, said the county’s search for a consultant merely launches an exploratory phase in the effort to draft a ballot measure.

Van Vliet said there are a number of gaps in the local health care system for homeless people with mental illness.

“It’s expensive to get people that need a lot of care into stable housing with a lot of support and dignity,” she said, adding housing for the homeless requires significant investment in construction, utilities and rent subsidies, as well as ongoing expenditures for supportive services, including mental health care and drug counseling.

“There’s promising one-time money from the state, but that doesn’t come nearly close enough to meet the need,” she said.

The county’s request for proposals seeks consultants with experience in “political revenue generation,” community organizing or civic engagement management who can plan, design a public outreach strategy for a potential November 2020 ballot measure.

Proposals must be received by 2 p.m. Jan. 23, after which county officials will begin a selection process that may require approval by the county Board of Supervisors, depending on the amount of the consulting contract, Robinson said.

The consultant would examine what other cities and counties have done to raise revenue, she said. “I think we just want to truly find out what’s out there and what’s possible.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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