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Ventura County Plans to Lay Off 14 Mental Health Employees

The therapists receive notices and are told their last day will be June 21. Officials say more cuts are likely as budget problems grow.

May 02, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

More than a dozen Ventura County mental health workers have received layoff notices, and county administrators warn more job losses are likely due to a worsening budget crunch.

Fourteen employees in the Behavioral Health Department were given letters last week informing them that they will lose their jobs next month, said Linda Shulman, the division's acting director.

All are therapists in county public mental health clinics, where they help adults with schizophrenia and other major disorders live on their own. The 600 patients they assist will be added to the caseloads of remaining workers, Shulman said.

Unless there is a last-minute infusion of revenue -- something that officials say is unlikely -- the therapists' last day will be June 21, Shulman said. The Board of Supervisors is expected to give formal approval for the layoffs in two weeks.

"We're looking at restructuring things to deal with the higher caseloads," Shulman said. "But worst-case scenario, we will have to reduce services to our clients."

It is the first time in a decade that substantial layoffs have been ordered in the county government's 7,900-person work force. Although hiring freezes and the elimination of vacant positions are routine around budget time, not since 1993 have sizable numbers of employees actually lost their jobs, said Barbara Journet, the county's human resources director.

In that year, 100 people were laid off, though about half were rehired for other positions in county government, she said. County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston said a comparable number may get pink slips this year as supervisors attempt to close a budget hole estimated at $15 million and growing.

Officials still don't know how much the state will cut from its funding of county-operated programs. Facing its own unprecedented budget shortfall, the Legislature is looking for ways to slice $35 billion in the next year.

"This crisis is real and a whole lot of people are going to suffer, both employees and people who are getting county services," Supervisor Steve Bennett said. "The bottom line is, we are going to provide fewer services with fewer people."

Johnston has met with union officials to explain why layoffs are necessary. Under labor contracts, the county must provide workers with two weeks' notice before their last day.

The mental health workers were given early notice so they would have time to find new jobs, Shulman said. She met with the Behavioral Health Department's 500 employees earlier this week to answer questions about the layoffs and to caution that more may be coming.

The department has long suffered from erratic funding and in recent years has also weathered management setbacks. For the 2003-04 budget cycle, the state has eliminated funding for a program aimed at keeping mentally ill adults out of hospitals by providing them with community housing, jobs, health care and other help.

That is a $3.6-million loss in Ventura County, Shulman said. She estimated the department's total budget gap will be $6 million, requiring more job losses unless new funds are found.

"I've got 500 people scared to death that they will be next to get letters," she said.

Sheriff Bob Brooks has said he may have to lay off 100 sworn and civilian employees. His department is expected to receive a 3.7% funding increase, but Brooks says that is not enough to keep up with higher salaries, pensions and other costs.

Johnston and the Board of Supervisors have insisted that Brooks live within his $160-million budget, pointing out that his is one of few departments that will get more money next year instead of less.

But Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten contend that supervisors are violating a local public safety funding law and have threatened to take the matter to court.

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