Social-service cuts debated in forum

Butte County will be taking care of fewer people with mental- and behavioral-health problems this year, and the effects are already being felt among care providers, who gathered at a county-sponsored community forum in Chico this week to voice their concerns and try to hash out solutions.

Many said they were already laying off counselors and cutting off patients who desperately need care.

“I’m scared to death for these kids,” said Karen Gage, a marriage and family counselor who was laid off due to the cuts. “These children are going to end up deeper in the system with more problems. They’re in crisis now.”

The forum came after an announcement last week by Butte County CAO Paul McIntosh that a broad range of social programs is on the chopping block because state reimbursement for the programs has not kept up with rising costs and needs. Speaking at the event, McIntosh said the county had very little flexibility in allocating its resources and was cutting some programs in order to save the ones it had a legal requirement to provide. McIntosh put most of the blame on flawed revenue-sharing schemes created by the state that force counties to provide social services but fail to pay for them.

“The fact of the matter is we have very little discretion within [our] budget,” he said. “We’ve been facing this dilemma for the past two years and have already made some cuts.”

The actual amount of cuts is unknown at this point, but will be finalized when the Board of Supervisors holds budget hearings this September. Some $2 million has to be found to make up for shortfalls in the county’s general fund caused by the state budget debacle.

To bolster his case for cutting services, McIntosh pointed to figures provided by the county Auditor’s Office that show Butte County’s spending for social services is higher per capita than in most other California counties. The figures also show that spending has increased steadily over the last five years, with the biggest jump occurring in the Department of Behavioral Health, which has grown 77 percent since 1998.

Speaking after McIntosh, the heads of the Social Services, Behavioral Health and Public Health departments spoke in succession, trying their best to defray criticism and explain the situation to care providers and patient advocates, many of whom remain unconvinced that such drastic cuts are necessary.

Some care providers questioned why county contractors had to bear the brunt of the cuts when the county’s 3-year-old mental-health master plan calls for more private-agency involvement. Others said the county was being shortsighted in failing to provide preventative services that keep people out of the mental-health system earlier, thus saving money in the long run.

But the meeting was not overly confrontational. Despite having differences of opinion, both sides expressed some optimism that collaborations with schools, universities and other institutions can be formed that might help shoulder the burden of care.