Merced County hacks services and 89 to lose jobs

MERCED -- Despite pleas from Merced County employees and the public, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved drastic cost-cutting measures aimed at closing a $44 million budget gap.

Eighty-nine county employees will lose their jobs as a result of the cuts, effective next month. The county's public health, mental health and human services departments took the biggest hits. The board also approved cuts to a farmland preservation program that provides property tax breaks for farmers who keep their land in agricultural production.

The board authorized $33 million in reductions. The county will cover the rest of the shortfall, about $11 million, with reserves.

"This is a very sad day for everyone," said board Chairwoman Deidre Kelsey. "I never thought we'd be here."

Reductions in public health included the elimination of support programs for teen moms, and cuts to child health and immunization programs. Public Health Director John Volanti said the county no longer will be able to respond quickly to environmental hazard complaints. He warned of fewer flu shot clinics and restaurant inspections, decreased capacity to handle disease outbreaks and longer lines for birth and death certificates.

Supervisors also voted to drastically scale back the county's Medical Assistance Program, which provides low-cost health care for poor, sick adults who don't qualify for assistance such as Medi-Cal.

Officials said cuts at the human services agency will leave child welfare workers too overwhelmed to investigate all reports of abuse. Services for the elderly and the disabled will be sharply reduced, including food delivery programs and a low-cost, in-home care service credited with helping hundreds avoid living in institutions.

Also gutted were job training programs that have taken hundreds off welfare.

Officials with the mental health department said patients should prepare for extended waits for counseling appointments and prescriptions. The cuts also will mean less help for people struggling with addiction and a steep reduction in beds at the Marie Green Psychiatric Center, the county's sole in-patient mental health clinic.

"(Addicts) don't stay clean when they're on a waiting list for help," Danna Jensen, a counselor with the county's Mental Health Department, told the board. "They commit crimes."

County employees and union officials criticized administrators for what they said was a failure to consider other options before resorting to layoffs. The $450 million spending plan adopted Tuesday included no wage reductions or worker furloughs.

"I wanted you to see that I'm a real person," Eva Reid, a public health worker who was laid off Tuesday, told the board. "I'm willing to take a pay cut, and I'd ask you to do the same."

Supervisors voted to stop accepting new participants temporarily in the Williamson Act program, which provides property tax breaks for farmers who promise to keep their land in agricultural production for at least a decade. They also reduced savings granted to those already enrolled in the program.