S.D. supervisors describe investments in mental health, parks spending at budget meetings

Chair of the County Board of Supervisors Nathan Fletcher wears a mask at a board of supervisors meeting in May
Chair of the County Board of Supervisors Nathan Fletcher attended an open Board of Supervisors meeting at the County Administration Building in May.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego County Supervisors described changes to mental health systems, workplace justice and parks in their proposed $7 billion budget for fiscal year 2021-22, and they listened to public feedback on spending priorities at virtual meetings.

On Thursday, Supervisor Nathan presented highlights of the proposed county budget at an online town hall. And Monday, the Board of Supervisors held a meeting to receive comments on the changes.

The Board will host another public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to seek public input.

“Our county is in a period of great transition,” Fletcher said at the meeting Thursday. “We have a new Board of Supervisors, we are tackling new issues, we are funding new things. I am very excited about this budget and excited about all of the new opportunities.”

The largest portion of the budget, $2.7 billion, or 39 percent of the total, will go to the Health and Human Services Agency, and much of that is dedicated to mental and behavioral health.

For instance, Fletcher said, $10 million is slated for a behavioral health crisis hub, which will be used to stabilize people experiencing mental health emergencies. Another $8.65 million will be used to improve behavioral health operations and data reporting.

The county also is restructuring its Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams, known as PERT units, to dispatch mental healthcare providers instead of law enforcement officers to deal with mental health crises.

“We know that if an individual is not a danger to themselves or someone else, we do not need law enforcement in that situation,” Fletcher said. “We expect our mobile response teams to begin operation countywide late summer.”

The county also is adding its Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, which will connect people to services and resources, and the county is expanding services in various languages, Fletcher said.

“It doesn’t matter what language you speak, when you have to pay your taxes we take your money,” Fletcher said.

Parks and recreation funding is slated to rise to $60.5 million, up from $56.5 million in the current budget year. That spending will include an expansion of Waterfront Park in partnership with the Padres, Fletcher said, and upgrades to Heritage Park, an historic area next to Old Town San Diego that includes several preserved Victorian homes and the city’s first synagogue, The Temple Beth Israel.

Speakers at the Monday budget hearing also expressed concerns about county parks.

Several speakers opposed a new park planned for the community of Alpine, arguing that it would be built on sensitive habitat and replace the natural environment with an urban-style sports facility.

“These concretized recreation fads, this is budgeting for the past, not a sustainable future,” said Frank Landis, conservation chair for the San Diego chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

George Barnett, a member of the Alpine Community Planning Group, said that the new park is greatly needed and long overdue for the rural area.

“Two-thirds of people in Alpine do not have access to any county park,” he said. “They need this park for mental health, physical health and recreation.”

Dan Shea, executive director of Feeding San Diego, thanked the county for providing food assistance during the pandemic, noting that many San Diegans who hadn’t experienced hunger before were turning to food banks after losing income because of lockdowns and economic disruption. He said food aid should be an ongoing priority in next year’s budget.

“Food insecurity is affecting not only low-income people but also those who never thought they would need any assistance whatsoever,” he said. “The loss of dignity in having to ask for help for the first time ever is devastating for them.”

— Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune