Mendo’s Crazy Mental Health Funding

by Mark Scaramella, August 3, 2011

Supervisor Dan Hamburg tried to puzzle his way through the County’s mental health funding at last Tuesday’s meeting of the supervisors. The dependably exasperating effort has eroded the mental health of many of its explorers but Hamburg emerged from his investigations merely as confused as when he had begun.

The Supervisor said he thought that Mendo was “leaving money on the table” by cutting the contract value of two large mental health services contracts with local providers Redwood Children’s Services and Tapestry Family Services, contracts worth $4.85 million and $2.55 million respectively.

The actual services these agencies render are largely funded by state and federal reimbursements. And they seem duplicative, taking a whack of the lucrative funding set aside to house and otherwise assist the dependent children of the poor. Not so long ago these were functions of the local welfare department, not self-perpetuating non-profits. No one really knows what to do with the children of the poor and the drug addled, but a lot of people are handsomely paid to pretend they do. But even assuming intelligent commitment, at the magic age of 18 the child is pretty much on his or her own after years of being bounced from foster home to foster home and serving as funding unit for a purplish array of social workers and wacky, marginally trained “therapists.” In other words, Redwood Children’s and Tapestry are a perfect Mendo fit, Mendo with its super-abundance of “helping professionals” in the context of a failed rural economy whose population dependably produces a large population of semi-abandoned and disturbed children. Some of the money goes to adult dependents, many of them graduates of the failed foster system. Hamburg thought that somehow if Mendo could provide more matching funds, that the contracts could be bigger and the County would then get more money from the state to pay more of the administrative costs.

But County Health and Human Services Director Stacy Cryer said it couldn’t be done. “We ran every scenario we can and we don’t have the match money,” said Cryer. “We’re already… We had to make cuts in other places to get to the point we’re at, the 15% reduction [as mandated by the across the board cuts the Supes ordered for this year’s budget]. So we already had to go back. Last year, when we came in with our budget deficit, the two contracts that we’re referring to now we’re already contracted for an amount that was over the budget in 09/10, or 10/11. So we were already operating in kind of a deficit position, so… from my perspective, certainly not from the County’s perspective, but… So we went and we ran every scenario and there’s just not the money, there’s not the money to provide the match. There’s nowhere to go.”

Hamburg tried again: “It seems like we don’t have the match if we can’t justify charging the admin. If we get the 15% admin that more than covers the 9.2% match and that’s sort of the crux of this to me. Do you know what I’m saying, Stacy?”

Cryer: “I’ll let Elaine answer this one, I think, because, no, it doesn’t make sense to me, so I’ll ask her to come up. Perhaps she can answer it better.”

Hamburg: “The 15% admin, you know, it brings in a big chunk of money and out of that chunk, I know this isn’t exactly how it works, but out of that chunk of money you can afford to pay your 9.2% [the matching percentage the County has to provide]. If you take in less money, you have less to charge 15% against for the admin.”

Cryer: “It doesn’t exactly… I don’t think…”

Hamburg: “That isn’t how it works?”

Cryer: “I know you feel that way. This is Elaine Boldt. She’s fiscal manager for Mental Health and technically she can probably explain it better than I can, so I’m going to let her have a shot at it.”

Ms. Boldt gave it a try: “I wanted to explain that the 15% administrative fees that are charged to the organizational providers for the administration related to their contracts is not available as matching funds. This is very technical….” And so on into the nether reaches of mental health financial bureaucratese readers need not be burdened with.

Ms Cryer concluded, “It’s a very complex budget.”

Hamburg said he understood that it was complex.

Supervisor John McCowen recused himself from the discussion of the Mental Health contracts since, as he said, “one of my tenants is coming before us and being that Tapestry is a source of income there’s a potential for a conflict of interest.” McCowen owns rental property in Ukiah, some of which is occupied by other Tapestry program staff.

Tapestry’s executive director Ben Anderson told the Board that while he understood that there were restrictions on which funds could be used for the County match, he thought that with a little creative accounting, the 15% admin fee could be juggled around so that some of it could be used indirectly for the County match and that thereby more money could come to him and Redwood Children’s Services and Tapestry for services to local Mental Health clients.

Hamburg sort of agreed, saying he was “still not convinced that we’re not leaving money on the table. … I think we may be going too far in anticipating cuts and shortfalls that haven’t even occurred yet. I just don’t, the numbers don’t add up for me and I see a revenue loss for our County that I don’t think we need to suffer.” So Hamburg decided that he would not support the contracts “even though I know it has to go through.” (Failing to sign the contracts at this late date in the process would jeopardize what’s already being funded.) “So I hope the other Board members will, you know, keep it going. But I just want to voice my own concern that, you know, I think we’re leaving money on the table, and I don’t think we have to do it, at least not this year.”

Board Chair Kendall Smith said the problem was that the Board had directed HHSA not to use General Fund money for Mental Health and that until the Board decides to allocate maybe $100k or $200k for leveraging Mental Health dollars, that’s the way it would have to stay.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department devotes an entire unit of the County Jail to the more troublesome local mental health cases, and the County’s police departments and Sheriff’s deputies provide much of the emergency care.

The Board then voted 3-1 to award the contracts, Supervisor Hamburg dissenting.

The Board spent about an hour listening to its citizen’s Redistricting Committee present two proposed maps. The citizens committee believes the two alternatives were the two most viable reconfigurations of the County’s five supervisorial districts. The citizen’s committee was asked to accommodate the 2010 census numbers by placing some 20% (plus or minus 3%) of the County’s nearly 89,000 residents (according to the Census Bureau, anyway) in each of the County’s five voting districts.

All five supervisors went out of their way to praise the committee. Your faithful correspondent has been a member of the committee but was unable to attend last Tuesday’s presentation because I had to work on this newspaper.)

After thanking everyone, Supervisor McCowen noted that, “Seven of the eight committee members are here today — and the other one is off making mischief somewhere.”

No one laughed.

The main difference between the two maps presented by the Committee was that one of them moves the village of Mendocino into the Fourth District with Fort Bragg; the thinking is that the Fort Bragg-Mendocino demographic is much more alike today than they were 20 years ago when the current boundaries were set.

Yours truly was also the only committee member who didn’t like either of the two maps that were presented, as I noted in a memo to the Board for the record.

“Both maps under active consideration leave the serious flaw of keeping the area just south of Willits out of the Third district and putting it into either the Fourth of the Fifth. Having gone through the process, and seeing the resulting map options, I would have preferred an option where Fort Bragg and Mendocino are combined in the Fourth, and Leggett and Piercy and South Willits are placed in the Third District. This would involve leaving Mendocino in the Fourth, putting South Willits back into the Third and, to compensate for the loss of population from South Willits and Mendocino, put Hopland back in the Fifth, then juggle the Highway 101 border of District 1 near Ukiah to make up for the removal of Hopland from the First.

“But, if forced to choose between the two maps being presented to the Board of Supervisors, I’d lean slightly to B2 (the one that leaves Mendocino in the Fifth) because E2 (which puts Mendocino in the Fourth) puts too much of the Willits area in the Fifth — while agreeing that keeping Mendocino and Fort Bragg in the same district makes a lot more sense than it did in the past, and that current trends will continue in the same direction since there’s no real prospect of an upswing in timber or fishing in the Fort Bragg area for the foreseeable future.”

The Board then scheduled two hearings to take public input on the subject between now and the end of October when they have to make their final decision. One hearing will be at their August 16 Board meeting in Fort Bragg and the other will be at their Board meeting in Ukiah on August 23. The maps can be seen by going to the County’s internet home-page and clicking on the redistricting box. Public comments can be emailed to County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor Sue Ranochak at: ranochas@co.mendocino.ca.us .

The state’s recently enacted $150 per “parcel with a habitable structure” fire protection tax is coming under increasing resistance. Our supervisors are duly annoyed. Mendocino County will have to collect this money and kick it back to the state from where it will make its way to CalFire, presumably.

“The $150 state fee will be charged to people who pay for protection and those who don’t, if they’re in SRA areas,” declared an annoyed Supervisor McCowen (referring to “state responsibility areas”). “The fee is assessed equally to those who are already paying for fire protection and those who are not. And that’s extremely inequitable.”

Supervisor John Pinches: “This is a large cash extraction from Mendocino County. I don’t know how many habitable structures we have in this County. It will be interesting to find out that number. You can times that times $150 and it’s a huge cash extraction from Mendocino County. And that’ll hurt the County. We’ll be talking about it in closed session as far as what San Bernardino County is doing.” (San Bernardino is preparing to sue the State saying the fee was illegally imposed.)

McCowen: “And there’ll be no additional benefit to Mendocino County.”

Pinches: “One of the main questions I have is, this is going to be collected by the Franchise Tax Board?”

CEO Carmel Angelo: “No, the Board of Equalization.”

Supervisor Carre Brown: “No, CalFire, I believe is going to be…”

Pinches: “So are they going to come to our Assessor’s office?”

Angelo: “That’s right.”

At this point the discussion turned in a new direction and it became quite clear which County officials were looking out for Mendocino County and which ones were not.

Pinches: “I don’t know what the legal ramifications but I don’t think we should release the money…”

Angelo: “I think we… I’m not the attorney here, but my guess is we have to.”

McCowen: “Well, at least they [the state] can pay for it.”

Pinches: “It’s a lot of staff time. We can say fine — the records are there. We’re not going to spend a lot of staff time. We’re getting no reimbursement for this.”

Angelo: “The information just on what we have and which parcels have improvements came from [County Assessor] Sue Ranochak. So my guess is it probably wouldn’t take Sue all that much to put this together.”

Pinches: “But actually, from Google Maps or anything, they cannot decipher a residence. They can decipher the square footage for assessed valuation. But they can’t tell from any type of aerial survey whether it’s a habitable residence or not. So that’s going to take an on-foot inspection of every parcel in Mendocino County to see exactly what’s there. Who’s gonna pay for that? Are we gonna staff the Assessor’s Office? I’m really disappointed that our state senator and assemblymember, Chesbro and Evans, voted for this. I mean, it’s a real slap in the face to rural counties especially. And it’s not showing… I don’t think they’re representing their districts well to even consider something like this. It’s just a cash grab, especially from poor counties.”

Chair Smith (loyal Democrat and former staffer of Democratic Congressman Mike Thompson): “Chief Little, from your [Pinches’] district, actually sat down with Mr. Chesbro and he reported that and I think there’s going to be further dialogue about the impacts to rural counties. So if you can come up with a method…”

Pinches: “The impact? Why didn’t they have these discussions before they passed it into law?”

Smith: “It came as a package proposal and … I mean, Chief Little didn’t fault the assemblymember for voting for it given the context of things they were dealing with but, you know, more will be revealed, I mean, here we are. It looks like it will be this litigious pathway that’ll get it resolved.”

Angelo: “As our fire districts need money, CalFire needs money as well. So, I mean, not to defend this action, but I think, given that this was in front of the decision makers [our “decision makers” are Thompson, Chesbro, Evans, a trio of undistinguished and politically undistinguishable career officeholders] I think I can see why they voted yes on this. I don’t think they had all the information. And who would know that residences could possibly be double billed? I’m sure that that wasn’t information that was shared with people. So…”

McCowen: “Oh, they knew that.”

Angelo: “They did know that?”

Pinches: “They did this because they could.”

Angelo: “There’s more to come on this, and CalFire is really tasked with putting this together so it remains to be seen what actually comes out as far as how this is actually interpreted.”

It should be pointed out that the hills of Mendocino County are now a-hum with neighborhoods. Prior to 1960 few people lived full time in the County’s ridgetop outback. Without CalFire’s aerial firefighting capacity, the County’s could not be safely occupied, and even with CalFire’s aerial capacity life off the pavement, especially in the summer months, can be a form of rural roulette.

 

 

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