Sonoma County supervisors confront major cuts in first hearing on $1.78 billion budget
Jennifer Lobsinger of Santa Rosa gingerly approached the microphone with a walker and wearing a bright pink bicycle helmet to tell Sonoma County supervisors what a budget-threatened health service means to her.
“I am here on behalf of myself and another person who hears voices and loves the programs that help us tremendously, like Friday night karaoke,” she said. “Without the wellness and advocacy center our lives are done.”
Lobsinger was referring to the Goodwill Wellness Center in Santa Rosa, one of an array of behavioral health programs targeted by a $1.3 million proposed budget cut by the Department of Health Services.
She was one of about 17 people who identified themselves as mental health patients or their advocates who asked supervisors to spare what they called critical services that would be hard-pressed to survive without county funding.
About 70 people, some wearing bright green T-shirts for Mental Health Awareness Month, attended the only public comment period on the county’s $1.78 billion proposed budget that includes plans to cut nearly 100 jobs, most of them vacant.
On Wednesday, supervisors will be forced to make tough choices to close a nearly $17 million gap between available revenue and requests to restore cuts and pay for programs.
Budget officials said Tuesday that $38.4 million in revenue exists to address $55.1 million in funding requests from department heads, community groups and supervisors themselves. The board has discretion over just $320 million in the general fund, about 18% of the budget dominated by state and federal funds earmarked for programs beyond local control.
Underlying factors driving the cuts include the unrecovered loss of millions of dollars in property tax revenue stemming from the 2017 wildfires and a county commitment to spend nearly $40 million on disaster preparedness, housing, economic vitality, safety net services and natural resources.
To balance the budget, department heads proposed paring their general fund support by 2.2%, primarily by cutting 92 positions from the county’s 4,050-member workforce and by reducing contracts, services and supplies.
“Our needs, our wants, our wishes will exceed our resources,” board Chairman David Rabbitt said at the start of the budget hearing that lasted eight hours. “We need to retain our fiscal discipline.”
No decisions were made Tuesday, but Rabbitt gained consent to set aside $3.5 million for public improvements he said were promised to Rohnert Park area residents near the Graton Resort and Casino, which has paid the county $44 million since it opened in 2013.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she was moved by the stories told by mental health patients and vowed to find a way to fund peer and family support services for the next two years.
“I have been looking at the numbers and absolutely I want to put forward for two years that we fully support the peer programs for $1.3 million,” she said. “I think these services are making huge achievements so now is not the time to make draconian cuts.”
The health services cuts would likely shutter the wellness center along with programs run by the peer services center in Petaluma, Buckelew Programs and West County Community Services, among others.
Susan Standen, a peer support services instructor, said the proposed cuts have caused angst among the people who participate in their programs.
“Many of you may not know the trauma that has been caused by this recommended budget and the fact that people right now are living in fear,” Standen said. “Please, I beg of you to prevent more harm before it is too late. Find the money.”
Health Services Director Barbie Robinson said budget constraints have forced her to eliminate nearly all funding for the county’s most critical, cost-effective programs, including a $3.8 million cut to residential facilities dependent on county funding.
The proposed budget spreads cuts across the board, hitting law enforcement, land-use planning, health and human services, community development, emergency services and the county administrator’s office.
Officials are also trying to match $10.6 million from stable revenue sources, such as property taxes and permit fees, with ongoing needs.
The county has a relative bonanza in $27.8 million in one-time revenues, which it intends to apply to nonrecurring programs.
Supervisors hope to approve the budget Friday.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner. You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or email@example.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.