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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Board Told It Lacks Mental Health Housing Funds

Public services: CAO warns supervisors that the money needed to build facilities isn't there. Officials say hospital closures statewide triggered demand.

March 15, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Board of Supervisors explores plans to expand housing for the mentally ill, Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford is warning that the county doesn't have the money to build and maintain additional facilities, no matter how pressing the need.

"The issue really is, how far should the county go to replace services that the state abandoned and shifted to the counties?" Hufford said Tuesday.

His warning comes as the county emerges from a financially strained year that sent Hufford's predecessor, David L. Baker, packing after four days on the job. Baker cautioned that the county is spending more than it takes in and that the chief administrator's position is too weak to do anything about it.

Baker predicted the county would continue to lurch from one financial crisis to another unless the chief administrator is given enough authority to analyze budget proposals and rein in out-of-control spending.

Faced with an alarmed public, supervisors quickly brought in Hufford, a former Los Angeles County administrator, to get the budget back on track and institute reforms to tighten control over spending. Supervisors vowed to consider Hufford's advice before acting on any new programs.

Hufford's latest comments are expected to shape supervisors' plans in coming months, as they look for ways to assist a population that the state released from psychiatric hospitals when it closed the facilities in the 1990s.

Since then, the state has sent counties money to provide the mentally ill with community-based care provided by teams of psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers. Last year, the state sent Ventura County $14.2 million in special funding for those purposes. But county leaders say hospital closures statewide triggered a housing shortage locally that state dollars don't fully cover.

Without enough community-based services in place, advocates say the county is wasting money on costly out-of-county placements for roughly 40 patients who need round-the-clock medical supervision and is failing to serve many other mentally ill residents.

Proponents also contend that the lack of services puts the mentally ill--and the public--in danger and contributes to law enforcement costs. But Hufford and others say taking on new long-term funding commitments could mean cutting other county services, such as parks, if the economy goes sour.

Hufford insists that he's not trying to block spending on the mentally ill. Instead, he said, he's urging the county to pay only for the programming, and look to outside sources, such as federal and state grants or nonprofit dollars, to provide construction and maintenance costs.

"The further the county gets into funding, it gets more and more into the business [of mental health housing] and further away from community-based services," he said. "I'm saying let's think this through. How do we address this need without the county taking on another financial burden?"

But Hufford's position has drawn the ire of some advocates for the mentally ill.

Susan Vinson of the local chapter of National Alliance for the Mentally Ill told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that Hufford has a "serious misunderstanding" of the shortage of housing and the county's actions that contributed to the shortage. Vinson contended that for nearly a decade the county has spent state funds meant for the mentally ill on broader health-care and social service programs.

Some advocates worry that Hufford's warnings also could divide the board and slow down supervisors' plans. Supervisor Frank Schillo has proposed spending $4 million of tobacco settlement dollars to expand housing and programs for more than 200 mentally ill residents.

Meanwhile, supervisors are considering another option that would use state and local dollars to provide 24-hour supervised housing for 34 mentally ill residents in a former county hospital facility.

Hufford said he will prepare a report by June addressing the needs, as well as potential costs and liabilities, of providing for the mentally ill.

But Tuesday, tempers flared as Schillo and Supervisor John K. Flynn argued that the issue has been debated long enough. Flynn pounded his fist to emphasize the immediate need to convert the former inpatient unit on Hillmont Avenue to a board-and-care facility.

Supervisors Judy Mikels and Susan Lacey insisted that such decisions shouldn't be made hastily and that board members need to keep their vow to follow Hufford's lead on fiscal issues.

"Five of us made a promise and I assume that five of us want to keep that promise," Mikels said.

Flynn said putting off a decision would put policy above the urgent need for care. He said the decision has been before the board for at least a year.

"The problem with waiting," he said to Mikels, "is that you're going to come up with another policy issue that we're going to have to look at."

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