By GUY KOVNER and MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
About 8,300 Sonoma County residents, mostly women and children, would lose welfare benefits totaling nearly $2 million a month under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget proposals released Friday.
“I think it’s a horrible mistake. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it,” said Roni Brown of Guerneville, a single mother who received welfare for three years and now works as an admissions officer at Empire College.
“I turned my life around,” said Brown, 54, who has twin 18-year-old sons.
Eliminating the cash aid program, called CalWORKS, would trim $1.6 billion from the state general fund — but also forfeit about $3.7 billion in federal block grant funds, local officials said.
“It’s unfathomable to me that we would even be considering it,” said Jo Weber, Sonoma County Human Services Department director.
The county’s CalWORKS caseload includes 6,200 children who will be prone to hunger, homelessness, educational failure and health risks if the “safety net” is removed, Weber said.
She also voiced concern about how a proposed $647 million statewide cut to the In-Home Supportive Services program would be implemented. Details weren’t spelled out in the governor’s budget, she said.
In Sonoma County, the program provides care for about 5,100 elderly, disabled or blind residents and pays about 4,000 people to care for them.
The governor’s plan for closing a $19 billion general fund deficit also would slash $9 million in state and matching federal funds from county mental health programs, including psychiatric emergency services.
Michael Kennedy, Sonoma County mental health director, said the loss would amount to 60 percent of funding for programs that serve more than 9,000 clients a year in the county.
“We can’t gut our mental health system. It’s vital for the quality of life of everyone in our community,” said Rosemary Milbrath, executive director of the Sonoma County affiliate of National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Rita Scardaci, county health services director, said it was “tragic” that the state had chosen to place the budget deficit burden “on the shoulders of the county’s most vulnerable residents — individuals struggling with addiction and mental illness, low-income adults, seniors, families and children.”
Mary Szecsey, executive director of West County Health Centers, said she was troubled by a proposed $523 million cut in state Medi-Cal costs that includes limiting patients to 10 clinic visits per year and charging co-payments of $5 per clinic visit and $50 for emergency room visits.
A pregnant woman or a patient with a chronic illness like diabetes will quickly use up 10 visits, Szecsey said.
Medi-Cal patients who exhaust their allowed visits would become uninsured, she said, but “we would still care for them” without compensation.
West County centers in Occidental, Sebastopol and Guerneville currently have about 3,500 Medi-Cal patients.
Other Medi-Cal cuts could dismantle the local treatment provider network for individuals struggling with addiction, said Gino Giannavola, division director of the county’s alcohol and other drug services program.
More than 1,500 adults and adolescents could see a reduction in outpatient therapeutic services and residential treatment.
Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said the governor was allowing a $2.4 billion tax break for corporations while cutting CalWORKS, childcare and “underfunding” public schools by $3 billion.
“He’s trying to balance the state budget on the backs of kids,” said Evans, a former Santa Rosa councilwoman who is running for the North Coast state Senate seat.
Evans, like other critics of the governor’s plan, said the state should be looking at “potential revenues,” such as an oil severance tax or an extension of the sales tax to services.
“I think everything’s got to be on the table,” Weber said, including new taxes or fees.
Lawrence Wiesner, the Republican opposing Evans in the Senate race, said that taxes are not the answer with state unemployment at 12.6 percent.
“We need jobs here. We need business to come back to California,” said Wiesner, a Santa Rosa accountant.
Needy residents are “paying the price” for cuts in state services made necessary by years of poor budgeting practices by state officials, he said. “That’s totally unfair.”
But the overspending cannot continue, Wiesner said.
Scott Kincaid, a Santa Rosa bank executive and incoming chairman of the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board, said that eliminating CalWORKS could have a economic “ripple effect” on the community.
“This not only takes away money from those who have significant barriers to entry into the job market, but it also takes away a meaningful amount of money out of our local economy,” Kincaid said.
CalWORKS recipients spend with local businesses virtually every cent of the $23 million a year they receive from the program, county officials said.
Roni Brown, the former welfare recipient, said the timing is wrong to cut assistance to the needy. “Right now there are a ton of people out there who need the help,” she said.