Mental-health pros question supes’ money moves

Local providers of mental-health services are worried over the county’s recent decision to transfer $715,000 out of a Department of Behavioral Health trust fund that is used in times of need to pay for programs for mentally disturbed kids.

The money, which comes directly from state and federal sources, is supposed to be a “risk pool” to ensure that services can still be provided in years when demand outpaces revenue. But high-level players in the mental-health field say that skimming from the fund will mean fewer services in the future, which translates into fewer jobs and less government funding for the county.

“Butte County started moving money out of this trust fund three years ago, and it has already impacted decision-making in terms of children’s services in this county,” said Ken Fleming, director of Sacramento Valley Family Services, who urged the Board of Supervisors to reconsider the transfer. Fleming, whose company contracts with the county to provide specialty mental-health services for children, said the transfer is a short-sighted measure that overlooks the value of preventative services.

“You need to pay close attention when you cut children’s services,” Fleming said. “You’re looking at expanding costs later.”

County supervisors and administrators say they had little choice but to go through with the transfer, as the Department of Social Services is facing a $4.5 million shortfall in funds needed to continue state-mandated programs. One transfer per year of up to 10 percent of the fund is allowed under a 1991 decision by the state Legislature to shift responsibility for providing social programs from state to county governments—a process known as realignment. Such transfers were designed to provide flexibility in county budgeting.

“It’s always tough when you have to cut some to save the whole,” offered Chico Supervisor Mary Anne Houx. “We have children who need the help, and the county has been providing that help, but the money’s just dried up. This is not the first time we have transferred money out of [behavioral] health, and it doesn’t mean [behavioral] health is going to go belly-up.”

The unanimous decision to move the money came at the May 13 Board of Supervisors meeting, at which the supes also voted to move $1,220,000 to Social Services from a trust fund held by Butte County Public Health. According to county sources, the move still means that at least $2.5 million will have to come out of the general fund to pay for rising costs in social services.

Much of the issue centers around foster care, which the county must provide under a partially funded state mandate. With 700-750 kids in Butte County needing foster care, at an average cost of about $1,700 per month, the county’s social service budget is bleeding red ink.

While the county offers such figures as justification for transferring funds, opponents of the transfer use the same figures to argue against it. George Siler, whose company, Youth for Change, contracts with the county for a variety of kids’ mental-health services, said he understood why the supervisors voted the way they did but still isn’t convinced they made the right decision. Siler said an investment of about $200 to $1,500 a month per child—which would come directly from the state—could keep countless at-risk kids out of foster care, thus reducing costs in social services.

“They’ve got to pay the bills, but I’m more worried about the ripple effect,” he said. “The funding stream that goes to funding [these] services comes 100 percent from state and federal dollars, so why are we cutting back on prevention and early intervention services for kids?”

Deputy Administrative Officer Greg Iturria said the county understands the need for preventive services but can’t always come up with the money for them, especially when other services are required by law.

"We’ve heard the concern that if you don’t make that investment it could cost more down the road," he said. "But you could argue that about any preventative measure. The truth is, there is not enough money to provide preventative measures across a broad range of [county] services."