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Ventura County

Public Mental Health Programs to Remain Intact

Thanks to greater efficiencies and new funds, agency has closed gap in this fiscal year's budget. But trouble looms after June.

February 25, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Government managers say they have scraped together enough money to continue operating Ventura County's public mental health programs at least through June.

One clinic had been targeted for closure, and others faced significant reductions, as a result of a $8-million gap in the mental health agency's current-year budget. But efficiency measures, and a last-minute infusion of cash, mean that full services and nearly all jobs will be maintained, said Linda Shulman, acting director of the county's Behavioral Health Department.

"Everyone's breathing a sigh of relief," Shulman said. "We've said all along we would turn every corner to avoid cutting services, and that's what we've done."

One employee, a research psychologist in the adult services division, has been laid off because funding for his position was cut by the state this fiscal year, Shulman said.

A third of the deficit was erased by making the $50-million department more efficient, she said.

For instance, Shulman said she saved $175,000 by renegotiating a contract with an Oxnard facility that houses 60 indigent mentally ill adults.

She also didn't fill vacant positions open, eliminated overtime and asked managers to take on extra duties.

"All those things added up to substantial savings," she said.

Budget managers have also identified additional funding that can be used to help plug mental health's deficit, County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston wrote in a report to supervisors.

A mental health trust fund has about $618,000 left over from fiscal 2001-02, the report said. An additional $566,000 in tobacco settlement money from the same year also remains unspent, it stated.

Together with a $2-million allocation of tobacco settlement money approved by supervisors last year, the funds will solve the department's problems for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, the county manager concluded.

But Johnston warned that the money is "one-time only" and that the Behavioral Health Department will continue to struggle in fiscal 2003-04.

"This will give them additional time to prepare for next year's budget, which unfortunately will be a continuation of difficult budgetary challenges," Johnston wrote in the report.

Mental health's budget has been hit hard in recent years because of declining revenues and fallout from bureaucratic disputes. Much of its budget relies on the county's general fund, the discretionary pot of money used to pay for a variety of government services.

That has made the department vulnerable to chronic funding troubles, officials say. The next fiscal year will be no exception, Shulman said. With the state facing a record $34-billion shortfall, the trickle-down effects on local mental health services could be dramatic, she said.

Despite criticism, supervisors have appeared more than willing to dip into tobacco settlement dollars to patch budget problems. The county receives about $11 million each year from a multi-state lawsuit against major tobacco manufacturers.

Supervisors contend the transfers are proper as long as the money is used to provide public health services. But critics say the county has come to see the tobacco dollars as a too-easy fix for chronic shortfalls.

Every time the board uses the tobacco funds, it means fewer dollars for community-based health programs, such as free dental clinics and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases, said David Maron, chairman of a citizen's committee that makes funding recommendations.

"If a county agency loses money, do we take away from other programs ... simply to make up these deficits?" Maron asked.

Supervisors have said they support innovative new programs. But their first priority must be to serve the county's neediest residents, said Supervisor John Flynn, who sits on the county's mental health advisory committee.

"I have people in this office every day who are just real sick," Flynn said. "I had one the other day who sleeps in his car. It's got to be a top priority for everyone."

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