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EDITORIAL: Mental health cuts avoided, but answers are still needed
The Press Democrat - 6/17/2018
June 17--Sonoma County appears once again to have ducked a devastating blow to local mental health programs.
During budget hearings last week, the Board of Supervisors agreed to tap various accounts for money to backfill most of a $19 million shortfall in the county's Department of Health Services.
Some layoffs are still planned, but the accounting maneuvers should avert most of the funding cuts that threatened to shut down numerous local mental health and substance-abuse programs as soon as this summer.
That's welcome news.
The cuts being contemplated would have undermined counseling, treatment, referral and housing programs managed by the county and dozens of nonprofit agencies -- and these vital services already are spread much too thin.
But a crisis averted isn't a problem solved.
Not in this instance anyway.
The bailout plan approved by the supervisors -- the second since the beginning of the year -- draws on about $18.4 million in one-time funding, spread over two fiscal years, to keep the programs afloat.
A long-term funding plan is still needed.
So is a thorough accounting for how the Department of Health Services' behavioral health division dug itself into such a deep financial hole.
The explanations to date from Health Services director Barbie Robinson and other county officials have been entirely inadequate.
In December, Robinson said a change in state funding formulas had created a strain on behavioral health programs, forcing cutbacks in more than 30 local programs and layoffs of temporary workers. She said the shortfall had been building for months. Yet it hadn't been shared with the public or, apparently, her supervisors -- the Board of Supervisors.
Then, at a board meeting in March, she blamed years of "poor fiscal forecasting, the lack of internal controls and operational inefficiencies" that resulted in perennial budget deficits for the behavioral health division, which manages mental health and substance-abuse programs.
Her comments came shortly after Michael Kennedy, the longtime chief of the behavioral health division, went on paid administrative leave for unspecified reasons.
Kennedy resigned more than six weeks ago, a fact that wasn't disclosed until The Press Democrat filed a California Public Records Act request.
County officials still haven't said whether Kennedy's departure was related to the fiscal crisis, and a settlement reached prior to his exit prohibits either side from elaborating beyond saying he wasn't guilty of any misconduct.
In response to queries from Staff Writer Martin Espinoza, Robinson wrote in an email that responsibility for the budget shortage was "shared" and "there will be no finger- pointing or placing blame on any one person or department or division."
Mistakes were made. Just don't ask by whom.
Should heads roll? We don't know, and state law generally makes personnel matters confidential.
Unfortunately, we haven't heard answers to questions that should be addressed publicly, including:
-- For precisely how long was the county making inaccurate revenue projects?
-- How much money was involved?
-- Where were the internal controls?
-- Were contracts and spending subject to oversight?
-- Do similar problems exist in other divisions, or other county agencies?
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