Sonoma County residents criticize proposed $1.3 million in mental health services cuts

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As Sonoma County leaders confront painful reductions in the upcoming budget, the health department’s behavioral health division faces $1.3 million in proposed funding cuts that would hamper providing vital counseling and support to some of the community’s most vulnerable residents.

The health department is operating with an $11 million deficit, with more than a third of that coming from behavioral health services.

In an effort to continue narrowing the shortfall, department director Barbie Robinson this month proposed trimming more than $1 million slated for seven peer and family support service programs in the 2019-2020 budget the county Board of Supervisors will negotiate in mid-June.

Expressing their opposition to the planned funding reduction, about 20 people clad in green representing mental health awareness month turned out earlier this week at the supervisors’ meeting.

“It comes down to life or death for a lot of us who use these peer programs,” Tesia Blonski, a peer counselor intern at a local wellness center, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “There is nothing like one peer talking to another peer in the sense of recovery, and you can try to fill these gaps with another program but we are not going away.”

The seven behavioral health initiatives slated to lose $1.3 million of county financial support are operated by Buckelew Programs, Goodwill Redwood Empire, West County Community Services, Sonoma County Indian Health Project and Sonoma County Human Service Job Link.

“If we lose this money we will have to cut back on other expenses throughout our organization,” said Lisa Valencia, chief financial officer for the Sonoma County Indian Health Project.

The group already has had to take money from its after-school tutoring program in recent months to continue offering mental health service, which Valencia said are key to the people helped.

“... We owe it to our patients to continue providing that service,” she said.

Budget shortfalls have plagued the county’s health department since 2014, when a $6 million deficit was first reported. Ongoing financial struggles led to a $33 million deficit over the next four years.

Since taking over as department director in 2017, Robinson has scrambled to backfill the budget holes with other revenue, as well as proposing to cut funding for mental health programs not required by state and federal officials. The seven behavioral health programs targeted for funding trims are examples.

In previous years, Robinson’s department depended on supervisors shifting money in the overall county budget in order to avoid reducing financial support for mental health services, including these seven programs.

David Rabbitt, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said he recognizes the importance of the mental health programs facing the budget knife.

“I know firsthand how heart-wrenching it is to make a decision that is going to cut off a service to someone in need, but at the end of the day there is only a certain amount of dollars available,” he said.

Supervisors have not yet made final decisions on what they are going to trim in the budget, Rabbitt said, noting that now they’re taking time to hear from the community.

Besides the residents who spoke about the issue during this week’s supervisors’ meeting, others say it would be impossible to thrive without the help they receive from peer-organized counseling groups.

Gordon Turcotte said that attending the group Tools 4 Recovery, hosted at Goodwill’s wellness center in Santa Rosa, is the only reason he’s still alive.

“Every day I attend these groups, I learn something new about how to manage my life,” Turcotte said, during a peer-led meeting Wednesday at the wellness center. “I have been coming for four months and I really do not know what I would do without them.”

Laurie Petta, director of behavioral health for Goodwill Redwood Empire, said the budget cuts were proposed before the peer and family services leaders were given a chance to push back to preserve existing funding.

Petta said the peer programs save the county millions of dollars by reducing hospital emergency room visits, psychiatric hospital admissions and law enforcement interventions costs. At the wellness center, Petta said the number of people served jumped over the last year from 35 people a day to now seeing 70 daily.

“These services are truly needed in our community and there is no plan for what will replace them,” she said.

Tightening the health department’s annual budget of $243.9 million is a multiyear challenge, Robinson said. In addition to making tough cuts in recent years, she said her team has been tirelessly developing ways for behavioral health services to bring in revenue to balance its high program costs and to offset future budget cuts.

In the current county budget, roughly $93 million was allocated for behavioral health. The division is facing a revenue gap of $8 million that it’s working to close, starting with proposing widespread cuts including the $1.3 million in peer and family services.

Blonski, the Santa Rosa peer counselor, challenged county supervisors to spend time understanding what peer providers really do for the community before they start budget talks next month.

“Only two people on the board raised their hands when I asked what peer providers are,” she said of Tuesday’s meeting before the supervisors. “I hope they really think about what we do before wiping us out in the budget.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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