In a state with overcrowded prisons and jails and a dearth of treatment beds for people incarcerated with a mental illness, California's Mentally Ill Offender Crime Reduction program was a stunning success. Among the 608 adults enrolled in the on-again-off-again program during its most recent run, a brief 18 months, jail stays declined by 92 percent—from 53,700 cumulative days in 2006 to only 3,387 in 2007.
Not only were program participants—who were paired up with a case-management team as a condition of their probation—staying out of jail, but of the 253 participants who reported being homeless prior to enrolling in MIOCR, only 20 remained un-housed after one year in the program.
Richard Conklin, a licensed clinical social worker for the Sheriff's Department, was MIOCR's program director for San Diego County. “It really kind of set the standard for what's likely to be most successful for that population,” he said.
But success doesn't always guarantee funding. The state Legislature first allocated money for MIOCR in 1999 in hopes that the program would “reduce recidivism and promote stability” among mentally ill adults and teens. The Legislature cut that funding in 2003, then reinstated it in January 2007, making available a total of $45 million for 21 counties. Eighteen months later, the program was eliminated.
When MIOCR (referred to as “my-oak-er”) ended, San Diego County lost $1.5 million, some of which was used to pay for five positions in the probation department's Adult Mentally Ill Offender Unit. Also gone was another $1.4 million that paid for intensive case management for mentally ill juveniles who found themselves in trouble with the law.
“We're mitigating” that loss, said probation department spokesperson Derryl Acosta. “We understand we have a large clientele in need of services, so we're using resources to the best of our ability.”
According to the narrative accompanying the county's 2009-10 operating budget, the loss of the probation department's mentally ill offender unit will result in “decreased field contacts, medication monitoring and transportation services to this population.”
Walt Ekard, San Diego County's chief administrator, has made it clear that the county will not use its own money to backfill cuts to state-funded programs like MIOCR. The county, meanwhile, is grappling with its own budget problems, the result of a decline in local sales- and property-tax revenue. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a spending plan that's roughly $250 million less than last year's budget and includes cuts to programs like Prop. 36 (the treatment-not-jail program for non-violent drug offenders), the loss of four child-welfare investigators in the public defender's office, cuts to truancy intervention and adult-protective-services programs and cuts to the emergency services and medical examiners offices. The list goes on. Spending on public safety and health and human services programs comprise two-thirds of the county's budget and are therefore hit hardest in a recession.
Untouched amid the cuts, though, are two programs that allow the five members of the county Board of Supervisors to grant money to local nonprofits of their choice. Community Enhancement Grants—for which each supervisor will get $700,000 on July 1 (up from last year's $640,000)—are paid for by taxes generated from hotel-room stays in the county's unincorporated areas. The grants are intended to boost tourism and, so, are doled out to nonprofits that can prove a nexus between the programs they offer and the county's appeal as a travel destination: museums exhibits, performance groups and community festivals all benefit from the grants.
The Community Projects Fund, meanwhile, from which each supervisor gets $2 million, comes straight out of the county's general fund. Throughout its 10-year life span, supervisors have described the Community Projects Fund (CPF) as a pot of money that could disappear at any time, depending on the county's financial health. Or, as a recent board agenda put it: “The county's fiscal condition has enabled it to reinvest taxpayer money in our communities for the benefit of the public.”
The programs, however, have been deemed a slush fund by critics, used to reward allies and pay for projects that, though for the most part worthy, are largely the sort that keep constituents happy: ballparks, swimming pools, hiking trails, bike paths and parades. CPF, specifically, has been criticized for its lack of transparency.
“There's no consistent guidelines; there's no application—every office handles it differently,” said Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. A 2005 report by the county's civil grand jury, based on a constituent complaint, said as much, describing CPF as “an undocumented program” with no policy dictating how it's administered. When the grand jury pressed the county for more information, it was told that “the possibility that the money might not be available from year to year” is what kept the Board of Supervisors from adopting a clear set of program guidelines.
Two supervisors—Ron Roberts and Greg Cox—have used that same justification to deflect criticism of how they hand out CPF money. Roberts, the online news website voiceofsandiego.org reported, repeatedly gave money—more than half a million dollars—to the San Diego World Trade Center and, in exchange, got free trips to Asia at the World Trade Center's expense. Cox, meanwhile, gave money to Elite Racing, organizers of the annual Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, which also happens to employ his daughter, the Union-Tribune reported in March.
“It's not a matter of giving it up,” Roberts told San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jeff McDonald about the CPF program last year. “It doesn't exist.”
But, as McDonald reported last week, the county has earmarked $10 million a year for the CPF program for the next two years. Roberts told McDonald that the first $10 million, which becomes available July 1, is “rollover money”—excess cash left over from the 2008-09 budget.
When pressed on how this could be, given that the county had to cut from its budget, Jim Duffy, Roberts' spokesperson, told CityBeat that the 2008-09 fiscal year had ended with a fund balance and then directed a reporter to county Chief Financial Officer Don Steuer, who didn't respond to an e-mail by press time.
“You've gotta question where it is they're saving the money,” said Bill Oswald, a professor of sociology at Springfield College and member of the Caring Council, a group that advocates for poor people. “I don't begrudge them the money—I think it makes some sense for them to have money to fund local projects—but at this point in time, who gets to have a slush fund?
“Most people in the time of an economic crunch, they figure out, What's our core mission and let's make sure that's taken care of and then we do the extras,” Oswald added. “Now, it seems they're more concerned with doing the extras than taking care of their core mission.”
When MIOCR first went away, in 2003, the county had money to keep the program going until state funding returned in 2007. Conklin said that the plan now is to use Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) money—available through 2004's Prop. 63 (the ballot initiative that imposes a tax on people making more than $1 million a year) to get something similar to MIOCR up and running soon. But MHSA money comes with certain spending restrictions, and Conklin is concerned that the new program won't have MIOCR's sharp teeth.
“With the MIOCR programs, you really could say to a person, ‘This is something you gotta do.' And with the MHSA, the statute is written to say these are voluntary programs. You could have somebody who is very mentally ill, who is desperately in need of these kinds of services, and if they say, ‘I don't want to play,' they don't have to play,” he said.