Douglas County administrator now says cuts to social services, mental health programs not likely as part of 2019 budget

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug is pictured in this file photo from January 25, 2016.

Cuts to social service programs aren’t likely to be a part of Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug’s proposed 2019 budget, despite previous statements that warned such cuts were a probability if voters rejected a sales tax to expand the county jail.

County voters last month did reject that sales tax, but Weinaug recently told the Journal-World that he doesn’t plan to recommend any significant cuts to social service programs or cuts to the approximately $1.5 million of new behavioral health services programs that the county has begun. Instead, other cuts will be proposed to help fund some improvements at the jail.

“I will not propose cutting any of the $1.5 million,” he said. “The bulk of what I have identified as being things they can cut back on have nothing to do with social services.”

That is a more optimistic picture than the one Weinaug presented in a February “what if Proposition 1 fails” memo to the Douglas County Commission, which stated cuts “would have to include the full range of services including social services, public health services, mental health services, and infrastructure maintenance.” Proposition 1 indeed did fail. County voters rejected the half-cent sales tax that would have funded a $44 million jail expansion, an $11 million behavioral health campus and $5.1 million in additional behavioral health services.

Weinaug said when he and staff started digging into 2019 budget details in the last month and received more up-to-date information, the fiscal picture became less grim than what he foresaw in February. The draft budget he will present commissioners will give options on spending cuts to make money available for jail improvements on a cash basis because commissioners remain committed to providing a safe and secure jail, he said. But the budget will also reflect the commitment of commissioners to preserving the $1.5 million in new behavioral health services allocated for 2018 and maintaining a county safety net of social services.

Funding also will be maintained for the reforms put in place in 2017 and 2018 to provide alternatives to incarceration of the behavioral health court and the pretrial release and the home-arrest programs, Weinaug said.

The County Commission will start 2019 budget hearings on June 25. Weinaug said he would have a draft 2019 budget ready for commissioners sometime the week before the hearings start.

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said her expectations for the 2019 budget aligned with those Weinaug outlined.

“My hope is we’ll be able to keep a budget amount close to the status quo, that we’ll be able to keep county services mostly whole, that we’ll be able to keep the new mental health and drug addiction services we’ve already funded and started this year, which are proving to be very effective, and accomplish all that while we find some funding internally to address the most urgent health and safety needs at the jail,” she said. “That’s a tall order, but I know staff is working on multiple options.”

The budget is being prepared with the message voters delivered with the defeat of Proposition 1 in mind and with consideration to what he and commissioners subsequently heard from constituents, Weinaug said. Not only does that mean a different approach to jail improvements than the $44 million plan voters rejected by voting down Proposition 1, but another look at how to pay for a behavioral health crisis center and additional behavioral health services that passage of Proposition 1 would have funded.

Thellman said she, too, wanted to start that discussion with the 2019 budget considerations.

“I’m anxious to have a conversation with the other commissioners about what next steps might look like related to moving forward with the mental health crisis center and related services,” she said. “So we’ve got a busy season ahead.”

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