Merced County officials say they're spending funds from Proposition 63 appropriately, and that their programs have helped many people in need of mental health services.
The Merced County Department of Mental Health receives $8 million to $10 million a year for programs under the Mental Health Services Act, a proposition passed in 2004. The initiative placed a 1 percent tax on incomes of more than $1 million.
The money helps people with severe mental health issues get the care they need, officials said.
"It's being spent to improve access to mental health services and to help individuals navigate the system and connect (them) with the treatment that they need," Sharon Jones, Mental Health Services Act coordinator in Merced, said of the funding.
However, the Associated Press recently reported that tens of millions of dollars from the proposition, which funds statewide programs, were being misused on programs for people who don't suffer from mental illness.
Two state Republican lawmakers have recently called for an audit of how funds from the proposition are being spent.
A representative from Assemblyman Dan Logue's office said Logue, a Republican whose 3rd District is located northeast of Sacramento, wasn't available to comment late last week. Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) was traveling to Los Angeles and didn't return calls seeking comment.
Merced officials defended the way they're spending the money, and said they're not offering gardening or horseback riding programs such as those reported by the AP.
An estimated 17,078 people in Merced County received help from area programs under the proposition during the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to Christina Nishihama, quality assurance specialist for the program in Merced.
Those people got prevention, treatment and community outreach and engagement services, Jones said.
Services such as prevention, early intervention, work force education and training, and community services and support are provided through umbrella programs, Jones said.
For example, one of the programs in Merced, Strengthening Families -- a $1.9 million project -- is reaching out to rural communities including Planada, Le Grand, El Nido, Dos Palos and South Dos Palos.
Some people living in the rural areas of the county face barriers to getting service, such as lack of transportation, Jones said. "These communities are not coming to get mental health services," she said.
The department has two community development partners in each of the rural areas.
They act as liaisons between their communities and the project. Officials use programs such as English as a second language classes and Zumba fitness programs as tools to engage people in those communities, building trust and helping to link them to mental health services, Jones said.
Jones told of a woman in Dos Palos who has needed mental health services since she was in high school and now she's in her early 30s.
"This person could have gone another 10 years without any interventions," she said. "This is a community issue. We all have to come together and address this need."
Programs in the area have helped reduce hospitalizations and incarcerations, Jones said, by providing individuals services such as coping skills. In some cases, she said, employment and housing have been provided.
"I think it's had a great impact in Merced," she said.
The county's mental health department hopes to develop tools to better track the outcomes of its clients' cases, Jones said.
Manuel Jimenez, director for the county's mental health department, stressed that the department isn't offering programs that could be considered "touchy-feely stuff."
The programs are providing helpful mental health services and social skills training, Jimenez said, and they are creating local jobs because the department contracts with area agencies to offer some of the services.
The department will begin using Prop. 63 funds to partner with two local agencies to provide housing for people with mental health issues in Merced and Los Banos who are homeless or are at risk of being on the streets, Jones said.
"The community is really getting a good deal with our services," Jimenez said.
If the state conducts an audit and comes up with new requirements for how the funds should be spent, Jones said, area officials will follow any new rules to ensure the money continues to be used correctly.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.