Refocus on the City Budget
As a principle architect of the city's Family and Community Services budget proposals regarding the use of nascent public safety funds, I need to set some issues straight.
Mr. Ortiz y Pino seems to have based his article “Focus on the City Budget” [v.13, i.5] on hearsay, not first-hand familiarity with the proposals, and ascribed malicious intent to the routine budgeting processes of city government—which thus far is working remarkably well in moving this issue forward.
It was wrong to say Mayor Chavez plans to devote the public safety tax funds to the “small percent of the homeless population who are both mentally ill and who commit criminal acts that pose a danger to others.” The proposals indeed involve a major new investment in services for persons with serious mental illness during the upcoming fiscal year. They do not, however, exclusively target mentally ill persons who are homeless and are not, repeat not, intended for those who pose a danger to others.
Instead, the expansion is intended to address the needs of those persons with serious mental illness at greatest risk of becoming victims of crime or of getting caught up in the criminal justice system for committing minor crimes, and for whom treatment and housing would be a more preferable option.
The number of such people is small, but they cost the most in terms of the police, courts and the corrections system (as well as mental hospitals, emergency rooms and homeless services). By our estimates, the jail alone would save more than $3 million annually if only 200 of the 400 persons with mental illness in jail on any given night were diverted to treatment in more appropriate settings.
It might, moreover, prevent even graver consequences. Tran Diem Pham had been arrested dozens of times for nonviolent offenses before his final, violent engagement with police in Nob Hill. If services such as we are now proposing had been available, he might be alive and well today and Sgt. Oleksak would not have been shot.
It is also wrong to call our concern “sudden.” The tragic shooting certainly raised the awareness of the general public to the problem, but it is hardly a new concern to many of us at City Hall. We long have had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done, though we never before had the resources to act.
The bad news about our proposals is that they use a large share of the funds available during the first year of the public safety tax (FY05). The good news, however, is that after the start up costs are absorbed with local funds, up to 74 percent of these costs should be eligible for reimbursement through Medicaid.
In fiscal year 2006 and subsequent years, consequently, additional resources will be made available for further expansion in other activities. We believe this will represent a substantial return—both humanitarian and monetary—on our initial investment.
It is also wrong to say our proposals do not seek to address other areas of prevention and intervention. We seek substantial new funding for substance abuse treatment in fiscal year 2005, with an even greater expansion of treatment services in fiscal year 2006 and beyond, including treatment for adolescents. The proposals also recommend funding for improved training of local treatment providers and an outcome evaluation of the treatment system.
Our proposals also focus in on the issue of family violence. We recommend launching a new initiative for the prevention of family violence that would obtain additional funding in fiscal year 2006 and beyond. We recommend more funding for programs serving victims of sexual assault and expansion of aggressive housing code enforcement to enhance the existing Safe Cities program.
Mr. Ortiz y Pino seems upset that the department made its own proposals, ahead of suggestions from the City Council. Has he forgotten how our budget process works? By law, the mayor must submit an executive budget to the council no later than April 1. To meet this deadline, departments were required to submit their budget proposals to the CAO in late January—including proposals for use of the quarter-cent public safety tax.
This year, however, discussions with the council have begun early in regards to the public safety tax and other issues such as homelessness. The broad outlines of the department's proposals have been shared with Councilor Eric Griego's ad hoc committee on the quarter cent tax, and Councilor Martin Heinrich's ad hoc committee on the homeless. Discussion of the proposals has been open, lively and respectful.
Although we believe that the programs we propose are supported by the best scientific evidence of effectiveness, we have made it clear that we see these as a starting point, subject to change if better ideas emerge through the legislative process. We are, however, already at a different and infinitely better place in budgeting for social services when the discussion is about the scientific merits of Assertive Community Treatment teams versus alternative treatment modalities, rather than merely which agencies should get how much money.
To borrow a phrase from Mr. Ortiz y Pino, we could use a lot more of this kind of “belly bumping.”
Whatever the final details of budget for the quarter-cent and other General Fund resources available for social services, the broad outlines of a consensus between the administration and council have already begun to emerge.
I am confident that there will be a package that includes expanded services for people with serious mental illness, for increased substance abuse treatment opportunities, for some kind of major initiative related to family violence, for expanded treatment services for young people and for a heightened effort to deal with nuisance housing.
I am further confident that there will be an insistence that these programs be evidence-based with clearly defined outcomes, and with providers selected based on their qualifications—through a request-for-proposal or other competitive process. Councilor Griego's recent comments on KUNM indicated a very similar understanding, and indeed, new Council President Cadigan led the successful push to codify such merit-driven contracting last year.
Sure, we may face a bumpy road at times. These are, after all, serious issues. In the end, however, I think we all know that this is a rare opportunity. We have to get it right.