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Tuesday’s (April 29) Board of Supervisors agenda has an item to privatize the County’s Mental Health Psychiatric Unit (the PHF or “PUFF”) which has long been in operation on Spring Street in the old county hospital. The short three-page report justifying this massive $4.4 million outsourcing expenditure was prepared by Don Ashton, the new Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) director who has no prior experience running mental health nor has a medical degree. His justification for privatization was based upon his few months of job experience and a population case study of only two other counties — Placer and Shasta. Ashton worked for the Sheriff’s Office for a short time as a fiscal manager between 2011-2012, and then as a fiscal analyst under the CAO prior to being handed this lofty position and salary by our CAO Terri Daly late last year. His qualifications pale in comparison to prior directors and his decisions are being based upon bureaucratic number pushing and cost slashing and not the quality and centralized accessibility of mental health care being provided to the community.
There has been an abundance of very expensive, fast-paced expensive county Mental Health contracts in the $4 million range hitting the Board of Supervisors agenda over the last several weeks on top of the $300,000 to $400,000 contracts that routinely show up for counseling and housing services. Some of them smell of favoritism and nepotism. I suppose if Mr. Ashton’s report were based upon much larger data population set, other studies and was prepared by people that actually had decades of experience in providing mental health and psychiatric care, the justification might be more believable; however, there is a general lack of trust in many of the county’s overpaid and inexperienced department managers, especially those that have been appointed by Daly and Assistant CAO Kim Kerr.
California has 54 counties and 52 of them operate their own psychiatric units, only two have recently outsourced. Basing the outsourcing decision of such an important community health need on two counties representing less than 4 percent of the population is dangerous and does not follow an established or solidly established trend. The problems Mr. Ashton cites in his report such as needing law enforcement assistance will still occur with a private contractor and the difficulty of recruiting and maintaining qualified staff wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the county paid its staff that provides the actual services better, instead of rewarding overpaid bureaucratic managers and directors with lofty salaries who are here temporarily to put another rung in their career ladder.
A bigger problem is the CAO’s appointment of a non-medical administrative bureaucrat to run this county department and the history of a rotating door of HHSA and Mental Health directors every year or two. Bachman, Nielson, now Ashton … the rotation of the upper management is like a carnie booth rotating shooting target practice game which leads to a lack of morale and stability. Then there was the BOS closed session coverup of the Nielson’s recent departure. Who can we trust?
The current trend appears to be for these highly paid bureaucrats to outsource everything and wipe their hands clean of doing any work other than budgeting and pushing numbers around, and little thought is given to actually serving the community’s needs and best location of services.