San Diego County Administration Center
The historic San Diego County Administration Center on the waterfront in downtown San Diego. Courtesy County News Center

County supervisors Tuesday unanimously voted in favor of $25 million to establish a fund to bolster behavioral health organizations — a move proposed more than one year ago that one supervisor says is needed even more in the wake of the global health crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sponsored by Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher, the Behavioral Health Impact Fund will allow “community-based organizations to serve more clients for longer periods of time.”

Cox, the board chairman, first announced the proposal during his State of the County speech on Feb. 19.

“What I couldn’t predict is that we would experience a crisis like COVID-19,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting. The spread of the coronavirus “has shocked our health care system” and will impact behavioral health services, Cox added.

The money, which will be used for capital investments, stems from an agreement between the county and city of San Diego. The city and county will both chose an official representative to approve any funding requests.

Helen Robbins-Meyer, the county’s chief administrative officer, said she would consult with Luke Bergmann, behavioral health director, on which county official would be the best choice.

Before voting, Supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar said they supported the fund but pressed for more oversight, including reports back to the board on how money is being spent and board approval of contracts.

Desmond said he was a bit concerned “that just two people would have the authority on $25 million without further oversight.”

Gaspar reminded her colleagues that the board “is responsible for every tax dollar that goes out … Twenty-five million is a lot of money. Sometimes we lose sight of that.”

County Attorney Thomas Montgomery stressed that the new fund includes rules on how the money will be spent, including specific criteria. “It wouldn’t be carte blanche,” Montgomery said.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said it was important for the board to move forward with the proposal, or the city of San Diego could back out. “I can’t believe the hesitation on my colleagues on this,” she added.

Jacob said while the board should be able to monitor the fund, it was important in light of the COVID-19 crisis “to get this money on the street” and to organizations that can provide badly needed behavioral health services.

Gaspar said she was not questioning the abilities of upper-level county staffers when it comes to deciding which groups get money from the fund. Instead, she took issue with how the proposal took shape.

Desmond said he would vote in favor of the fund, but didn’t appreciate “being put in a box.”

Fletcher said as a matter of county policy, staff members are allowed to execute contracts that don’t need board approval.

While supervisors should be updated on the fund, “I have confidence that we can sign off on the right projects,” he added.

After the meeting, Gaspar said in a statement that as a strong advocate for expanding behavioral health services, she asked her colleagues “to add a simple, good-government oversight provision so that our board would know exactly how this $25 million is spent. My colleagues wouldn’t budge.”

— City News Service