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State Shortchanges County in Health Funds, Suit Says

July 11, 1986|DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | Times Staff Writer

Seeking a historic shift in the way state tax dollars are distributed, San Diego County filed suit Thursday against the State of California.

The suit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, alleges that the state's allocation of money for mental health care and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs violates the constitutional rights of San Diego County citizens.

The suit contends that people in San Diego with mental illness or drug or alcohol addictions have less access to state-funded services than do citizens of Los Angeles, San Francisco and other counties.

That inequity, as county officials call it, results from an arbitrary and unreasonable method of spreading tax dollars among the state's 58 counties, they say.

At a news conference attended by four of the five county supervisors, the county's top legal counsel and about a dozen staff members, officials blamed many of the county's recent problems on a lack of funds.

Supervisor George Bailey said he realized soon after joining the board in 1985 that "chaos" in county programs was in large part due to the fact that San Diego historically has received far fewer dollars for certain services than other urban counties do.

"There doesn't seem to be a rational argument on the part of the state as to how it has distributed these funds," Bailey said. "They're being distributed basically because this is the way they've always been distributed."

If mental health, drug and alcohol programs were funded according to accepted formulas based on needs, Bailey said, San Diego County would be receiving $19 million more per year than the $38 million it now receives for those services. If the programs were funded according to population, he said, the county would get $25 million more.

Supervisor Brian Bilbray said the funding differential means that county residents in need of services are suffering from what he called "a recognized violation of individual rights."

"The real issue is . . . does a San Diego citizen have as much right to access to state funds as somebody from Los Angeles, who if they have the same problem would receive twice as much funding for their problem, or (someone) from San Francisco, where they would receive four times the funds," Bilbray said.

"Everyone should have equal access to the benefits of state government. That doesn't exist now."

Named as plaintiffs in the suit are the County of San Diego, the five supervisors as taxpayers, and three recipients of county services identified only as Mary Roe I, Mary Roe II and John Doe, each represented by their legal guardian, Richard J. Thomson.

The defendants are the State of California and state Treasurer Jesse M. Unruh, Controller Kenneth Cory, Finance Director Jesse Huff, and the heads of the Health and Welfare Agency, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.

County Counsel Lloyd Harmon compared the suit's legal strategy in some ways to the case of Serrano vs. Priest, which in the 1970s prompted a dramatic shift in the way California school districts were funded. In that case, the state Supreme Court ruled that education is a fundamental right under the state Constitution and that funding for schools ought not be based on wealth--or the value of the local property against which taxes for schools were levied.

But Harmon said he believes the county can force a change in state funding even without establishing that the Constitution provides a right to mental health, drug and alcohol rehabilitation services.

He said proof that the state uses no rational standard for allocating its funds would be sufficient to show that the state is violating county citizens' rights to due process. Harmon said the suit also alleges that state officials have unlawfully delegated to others the power to distribute funds to the counties.

State government officials were reluctant to discuss the suit Thursday. Drug and Alcohol Program officials declined comment, and a reporter's phone call to the Department of Finance was not returned.

Dean Owens, spokesman for the state Department of Mental Health, said the department believes that funds are being distributed equitably.

Owens said all increases in funding for counties are allocated according to the "poverty-population" index favored by San Diego.

"The money is being allocated in a fair manner and all new monies are being allocated in a major effort to bring more equity in community mental health dollars," Owens said.

In an interview with The Times earlier this year, Clifford Allenby, deputy director of the Department of Finance, said San Diego County was in large part responsible for its own plight. He said the county receives less money for certain programs because much of that funding is based on levels established more than a decade ago, when conservative San Diego County politicians were reluctant to establish large health and social service programs.

Bailey acknowledged Thursday that some of the inequities may have been the county's fault because "we didn't want to get aboard on some of these programs when they were initiated."

"But as they have evolved, it has become very obvious that there are just as serious problems in San Diego as there are anywhere else in the state," Bailey said.

Although the county believes it can win its suit in court, Bailey said the legal effort might also give leverage to San Diego's delegation in the state Legislature because, while the suit is pending, other areas' legislators will have it "hanging over their heads."

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