The ‘Use It or Lose It’ Label Now Applies to Mental Health Funding

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

The number one concern for Californians is the homeless crisis. One of the chief concerns expressed by homeless advocates is that many people on the streets need help with mental health issues. Governor Gavin Newsom put in money to help confront the mental health issue in his new budget, yet, at the same time, the governor revealed that a half-a-billion dollars collected for mental health services is unspent.

The governor is telling the counties now, ‘Use it or Lose it.’

The mental health money in question sits with the counties, received from the Proposition 63 millionaire’s tax passed by voters in 2004, dedicating revenue to confront the growing mental health problem. The problem has only grown larger since then but hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the mental health issue goes unspent.

Once again, taxpayers must question government management of  tax dollars. Unfortunately, it’s an old, familiar story.

Newsom threatened to take the money away from the counties if they don’t respond quickly. “We still have people sitting on a lot of reserves. They need to spend it, or we’re going to revert those dollars back to the state and reinvest it,” Newsom said.

Like one of those oft repeated stories on stage and screen in which the lucky inheritor of a great fortune must spend so much of it to get the rest, counties were warned that they have to spend $161 million on mental health services in the next few months or lose it.

For counties, the debate on how to spend money on mental health often stymies spending the money.

Take Los Angeles County for example. The LA County jails have been called the largest mental health facility in the world. It is estimated than one-third of the county’s jailed population has mental health issues. In fact, a federal monitor was appointed a few years ago as part of the settlement of lawsuits over mental health care and deputies’ use of force.

One plan that was originally accepted by county officials was to tear down the old central jail and replace it with a jail geared to dealing with and treating prisoners with mental health problems. But advocates as part of the national justice reform movement argued that mental health money could be used more wisely throughout the community first instead of building a specialized jail. LA county supervisors listened and  spiked the jail plan—to the protests of the sheriff who warned of the dangers of doing so.

With one plan in the works shelved, the government bureaucracy must move in a different direction on how best to spend those mental health funds. Don’t be surprised if that process takes time since government bureaucracy tends to travel at a snail’s pace.

We’ll see if the governor’s threats that counties could lose mental health funding will quicken that bureaucratic tempo.

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