Homeless agency seeks cutback pardon

As the county braces for a bloody $90 million battlefield, two programs fight for their lives

Program director Roderick Hayes talks to homeless families outside Serna Village.

Program director Roderick Hayes talks to homeless families outside Serna Village.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Robert Tobin would breathe a great sigh of relief right now—if he truly believed he was out of danger. “As one county staffer said to me unofficially, we got a reprieve, not a pardon,” explained the executive director of Sacramento Cottage Housing Inc. (CHI), referring to his agency’s recent escape from nearly $225,000 in previously proposed budget cuts at the hands of county supervisors.

Tobin had spent most of January rallying the troops to make known the effects such cuts would have had on CHI’s Serna Village and Quinn Cottages—two programs responsible for helping formerly homeless families, children and adults with the transition from the streets to self-sufficiency. Serna Village, located at the old McClellan Air Force Base, is home to 40 families with disabilities, including 77 children. Quinn Cottages, located on A Street, is home to some 60 adults and 12 children.

Both programs have been widely recognized for their successes and their cost-effectiveness. Quinn Cottages, for example, boasts an 82-percent graduation rate, meaning graduates of the program—which entails drug and alcohol counseling, job-skills training and continuing education—successfully move from the program to permanent shelter, independent living and taxpayer status.

When the dust settled January 27, county staff recommended that supervisors keep intact CHI’s current level of funding, thereby qualifying Sacramento County for an $11 million federal Housing and Urban Development award. The county qualifies as long as its “matching funds” obligation—$125,000 for Serna Village and $96,000 for Quinn Cottages—remains intact. Take county funding away, and the federal money goes with it.

If that were to happen, Tobin said, both programs would collapse.

Geoffrey B. Davey, chief financial officer for Sacramento County, said the previously proposed cuts to CHI are not due to be revisited, precisely because of the federal funds they leverage and the relatively small investment needed from the county to do so.

But Tobin and others who serve the homeless believe there are plenty of reasons to be wary in the months ahead, given Sacramento County’s dire financial situation and the political realities therein.

“I’m not challenging Geoff’s good intentions,” Tobin said. “He’s doing a great job trying to do this in a way that makes the most sense, financially and ethically. And in theory, that makes perfect sense. And the [supervisors] right now have seen that wisdom.

“But politics isn’t really about those things. Elected officials are going to have a lot of heat on them when it comes to stark choices. So, yes, we still feel we’ll be on the block come August.”

The county’s own budget shortfall of $45 million for 2003-2004, due to increasing costs vs. slow revenue growth, is exacerbated greatly by several proposals slated to take effect in July if Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget goes through, according to Davey.

Although Schwarzenegger made good on his promise to backfill cities and counties for the revenue lost when he rolled back the tripling of the vehicle-license fee, popularly known as the car tax, Davey said his county still has to absorb between $27 million and $39 million in revenue lost from the fee between June 20, 2003, and October 1, 2003.

Additionally, the governor’s proposal to transfer $1.3 billion in property taxes from counties to schools, along with other revenue shifts from counties to the state, would add another $45 million to $50 million to Sacramento County’s debt in 2004-2005. The property-tax shift alone would cost the county $35 million, and Schwarzenegger’s proposal to take federal welfare block-grant monies back from counties, which Sacramento County currently uses to fund programs for incarcerated juveniles, would slash another $4 million from county coffers.

That’s close to $90 million to cut in about 150 days, for those keeping track.

If any of these proposals sounds vaguely familiar, it is. But you have to reach back to the early 1990s. Call it the ghost of Pete Wilson.

“It’s just a coincidence that he was governor when this happened before, right?” Davey said, dryly. “There’s no question these cuts are taken from his playbook. He’s definitely behind the scenes here.”

The “whys” have little ultimate relevance, however, as Davey attempts to steer his bosses through the difficult cuts that lie ahead. It’s bloody and ugly, and few people are getting much sleep.

“Not much sleep lately, no,” Davey said. “Because of my position, I have to be fairly unemotional and not be partial to any one program or another. But, really, it’s just awful.

“We’re in the business of providing services, not taking services away,” Davey continued. “But I have to be pretty determined to guide the supervisors to balance the budget. We can’t print money like the federal government … so, we just have to get there. But, yes, it’s ugly.”

Although the budget hearings and cuts taking place now address the county’s mid-year deficit and local problems, Davey said people need to understand the atmosphere in which the cuts are taking place.

Protest signs hang outside Quinn Cottages.

Courtesy Of Quinn Cottages

“People are saying, ‘Why are they doing all these terrible things?’ and we’re saying, ‘Hey, in a few months, we’re looking at another $45 to $50 million in cuts from the state,’” Davey said. “There are just no miracle, one-time solutions to be had, and it doesn’t make sense to even try when in August or September, we’re going to have to come back and cut again, in such huge numbers.”

And that’s why, Tobin contended, CHI’s programs will be up for grabs yet again as the pressure grinds down.

Though conceding that things would get harder, Davey said it was not the county’s plan to revisit Serna or Quinn, even with pressure.

“I understand [Tobin and others] are nervous,” he said, “looking at the unpopularity of the cuts we’re going to have to make in March and June, especially with law enforcement.

“But we specifically had a discussion with supervisors not to put these people through a yo-yo process. … I can’t deny that it could happen, but it’s not our intent, and that’s why we’re specifically working from the bottom up.”

Davey conceded, however, that for every program not cut, supervisors would have to cut more from law enforcement, which includes not only sheriff’s deputies on the street, but also district attorneys, public defenders and probation officers.

“It’s just going to get harder as we go along,” he said.

That’s why Tobin and a host of program supporters, including alumni and current program participants, plan to make visible their achievements during the next 90 days.

“We’re asking them to give up their anonymity to show the public what a difference they’ve made in their own lives—and in the lives of taxpayers—by virtue of their participation in these programs,” Tobin said.

David Husid is but one example. A drug addict and ex-con when he came to Quinn Cottages in 2002, Husid had been an annual drain on taxpayers to the tune of about $26,000 per year while he was incarcerated for computer fraud. During his 14-month stay at Quinn Cottages, he successfully kicked his addiction; enrolled in and graduated from American River College; received his associate’s degree in human services and chemical-dependency studies; and is now attending California State University, Sacramento.

Of further importance to taxpayers, Husid is just one of the more than one-third of program graduates who have gone on to paid employment with the agency. Husid receives roughly $25,000 annually for his work as an alcohol and drug counselor for program participants at Serna Village.

“I owe my life to this place,” Husid said, referring to CHI. “Am I rich? No. But I have a savings account, I have a new truck, I have an apartment, and I pay taxes. More than that, I have the opportunity to give back to others what was so freely given to me.”

District 1 Supervisor Roger Dickinson said he and fellow board members see the value in programs such as Tobin’s, both financially and in human terms. “I believe the board will continue to work at balancing the county’s budget without affecting programs seen as vital,” Dickinson said, confirming Davey’s assertions, “and programs assisting the homeless fall into that.

“Given the fact that the monies we put into homeless-assistance programs leverage several times their value in federal funds, I believe it is unlikely the board will make any significant further reductions if at all possible,” he said.

Tobin, on the other hand, said he’s still worried about the political muscle of Sacramento Sheriff Lou Blanas.

“When the sheriff comes back and says, ‘Do you want homeless people off the street, or do you want us protecting the doors of your homes and businesses?’ … there’s just going to be a lot of pressure on elected officials,” Tobin said.

But Tobin hastened to add that he and other social-service providers are not holding their programs up as being any more or less important than the programs and services provided by the sheriff’s department, district attorney or public defender.

“All these services meet different needs that are essential to a healthy community,” Tobin said. “That’s why taking a piecemeal approach to these cuts is preventing citizens from seeing the whole impact of these ripple effects.

“If these announcements came out all at once, I believe the collective ‘ouch’ would be loud enough to give the supervisors support for revenue enhancements vs. the straight expense reductions we’re seeing now.”

For now, Tobin will continue to act like a man who’s been given a reprieve, not a pardon.

“Round one: We’re still standing,” Tobin concluded. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. We don’t want anyone lulled into a false sense of security.”