Tomorrow’s OC Register is expected to publish the piece below on Laura’s Law, which treats the topic quite thoroughly. Immediately after the death of Kelly Thomas in the city of Fullerton, parents and relatives of those suffering from mental illness pleaded with the Board of Supervisors, during the Public Comments segment, that the County adopt Laura’s Law. The County’s Mental Health Board had recommended the adoption of Laura’s Law years ago, to no avail. I volunteered to have the Commission to End Homelessness (C2EH) review the subject, as Kelly Thomas had been identified as a homeless person. The meeting on the matter filled a large hall and consumed an entire morning. After lengthy deliberation, the C2EH recommended that the Board of Supervisors adopt Laura’s Law if funding could be secured and that a cap could be imposed to implement this concept in a manageable manner. It had been determined through legal opinions that Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, could not be utilized as a funding source. In a long era of making budget cuts year after year, the Board had no resources to fund Laura’s Law. So it was off to the State Legislature to see if Proposition 63 could be modified to allow this special tax to be available for this critical mental health initiative.
When I walked the halls of the State Capitol, I received a very common and honest question from many of the Legislators that I visited, “What is Laura’s Law?” Fortunately, Wikipedia has a page on the topic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura’s_Law. I serve as Chairman of both the C2EH and the Orange County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, of which Mark Refowitz, the County’s Health Care Agency Director also serves. The two of us have been working diligently on this matter for many, many months. Fortunately, the prodding from Orange County has borne fruit. California Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the author of Proposition 63, sponsored Senate Bill 585, which will provide the necessary language for Prop. 63 as funding source. SB 585 is now on the Governor’s desk for signature. Consequently, the OC truly is poised to consider adoption of this opportunity to assist families who are dealing with a child that has a mental illness.
This topic has been a growth experience for me. It’s amazing how much a Supervisor is exposed to and in this job I learn something new every day. I have kept you updated on this journey, as much as possible, over the past two years (see: MOORLACH UPDATE — Voice of OC — August 10, 2011, MOORLACH UPDATE — Laura’s Law – Plus — November 22, 2011, MOORLACH UPDATE — OC Register — December 27, 2011, MOORLACH UPDATE — Laura’s Law — March 19, 2012, MOORLACH UPDATE — Rebuilding Reserves — May 9, 2012, and MOORLACH UPDATE — Laura’s Law Legislation — April 26, 2013).
By TERI SFORZA
Money is no longer the issue. Worries about civil liberties and personal freedom have faded. And now, two years after homeless schizophrenic Kelly Thomas died following a gruesome altercation with Fullerton police, Orange County is poised to put the controversial Laura’s Law on its books.
Thomas’ death in 2011 sparked an agonizing debate over whether Orange County should embrace the law, which would allow officials to order severely mentally ill people into court-imposed outpatient treatment, even if said treatment is against a patient’s will.
Families pleaded with the Board of Supervisors to adopt the law, arguing it might prevent tragedies like Thomas’ and detailing how excruciating it is to watch loved ones descend into darkness and be powerless to help.
Some with mental illness protested fiercely, saying the decision to enter or refuse treatment should be theirs, and theirs alone.
The argument then was moot in many ways, because Laura’s Law was prohibitively expensive (it could apply to some 120 severely mentally ill people who pose a danger to themselves or others and would cost from $5.7 million to $6.1 million a year, the county said). O.C. just didn’t have the money.
But all that soon may be history.
A new bill – on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature – would expressly allow counties to spend Proposition 63 money on Laura’s Law, which some lawyers said had been forbidden. (Prop. 63, if you are not a walking encyclopedia of California ballot initiatives, added a 1 percent tax on those earning more than $1 million a year, to be spent on mental-health programs. O.C. expects about $104 million in Prop. 63 money this year.)
On Aug. 28 – anticipating that this bill would be signed – the O.C. Mental Health Board gave a unanimous thumbs-up to spending $4.4 million on Laura’s Law outpatient treatment for the severely mentally ill in 2014-15. Several more layers of approval are required before this becomes reality, but officials feel the time has come.
“Having as many options available to get individuals into treatment as possible is a good thing,” said Mary Hale, behavioral health services director for the county. “It’s one more tool that we can use.”
Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach – who was quite skeptical of Laura’s Law until taking it to the county’s Homeless Task Force and studying up on mental health issues – has become a believer as well.
“Families that are dealing with children who have mental-health issues need another tool in the tool box,” Moorlach said. “A Superior Court judge cannot force someone with schizophrenia to take his medication. But they can tell him to take it. That’s the ‘black robe effect,’ and it can be powerful. A lot of people who are mentally ill just don’t know they’re mentally ill, and families are telling us, ‘We need some outside help.’ I’m in the camp now. If we can provide this extra help, we should.”
Orange County appears to be at the front of the curve on this issue: Only one California county has adopted Laura’s Law (Nevada County), and only one has a modified pilot program (Los Angeles).
“We’ve been working on this for quite some time,” said Moorlach. “I get Laura’s Law. I get it. The issue has always been, how do we pay for it?”
When California voters agreed in 2004 to tax the rich to fund programs for people with serious mental-health issues, the selling point was that the money would be focused like a laser on the most tragic and intractable cases.
Nearly a decade – and $10 billion – later, critics say that’s not quite what has happened. One recent study said Prop. 63 spurred a “feeding frenzy” among social service providers, many of whose programs are only peripherally related to mental health. Critics insist money should be spent on programs like Laura’s Law – but lawyers concluded that, because of how the law was written, such spending was not allowed.
Enter Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D–Sacramento), Prop. 63’s author. With the prodding of folks right here in Orange County, Steinberg introduced a bill clarifying that Prop. 63 funds can, indeed, be used to provide mental-health services under Laura’s Law. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it.
“Laura’s Law will not solve California’s mental-healthcare challenge; it is a last resort at the very end of a continuum of care,” Steinberg said in a prepared statement. “But counties seeking to implement Laura’s Law must have a clear funding source so that the debate about whether to implement these programs focuses on the pros and cons of the treatment, rather than a dispute over funding sources.”
Laura’s Law was passed by the California Legislature in 2002 in honor of Laura Wilcox, a 19-year old (pictured above) who was working at a public mental-health clinic in Nevada County during her winter break from college. A man who had refused treatment stormed the clinic, shooting Wilcox and two others.
Before Laura’s Law can be used, however, counties must formally adopt it. Orange County, and just about everyone else, never did. Since Thomas’ death, officials here have been working behind the scenes – and across the aisles – to make it happen. A resolution to adopt Laura’s Law is expected to go to the Orange County Board of Supervisors by spring. There will be public hearings and some heated debate – but it is expected to pass.
Hale, the county’s behavioral health services director, said that the recovering economy means more Prop. 63 funding has been coming in than was expected – and the county is making plans to spend another $22 million on mental health services (including that $4.4 million for Laura’s Law).
“I’m very excited about the whole thing,” Hale said. “Since 2007, we haven’t been in the position where we’ve had additonal money to be able to expand services. We’ve been in crisis mode. (Prop. 63) is a godsend, and finally, for the first time, we have some opportunity to grow programs and start doing some of that expanded work that was envisioned when this proposition first passed.”
CHANGE OF HEART
Two years ago – the day after a deadly shooting spree at Seal Beach’s Salon Meritage – the county Health Care Agency weighed in with a dispassionate analysis of Laura’s Law, concluding that the minuses outweighed the pluses.
On the plus side, it listed two things: Laura’s Law provides an additional treatment resource and allows family members to request service, and it may help get noncompliant people into treatment.
On the minus side, it listed six things: it lacks adequate funding; it does not offer any “additional statutory framework” for involuntary treatment that’s not already available; it limits personal choice; it raises serious civil liberty concerns; it likely won’t provide the family involvement and mandatory taking of medications that proponents hope for; and it lacks clear evidence that it really works.
“There are legitimate reasons why a person may want to opt out of treatment, including the fact that side effects of psychiatric medications can be severely uncomfortable and can involve health risks,” the report said. “Many believe that informed choice in regard to treatment is essential to recovery and maintaining one’s mental health. Furthermore, negative experiences with involuntary treatment may make people more hesitant to access any form of treatment at a later point in time.”
Activists have been urging the county to move nonetheless, saying it can’t hurt to have the options Laura’s Law provides available here. And Hale, the behavioral-health director, said the main obstacle always was funding.
“We’ll be able to try the program and see how it works,” she said.
In addition to the $4.4 million for mental health services, Laura’s Law will require about $1 million from the public defender’s and county counsel’s offices – money that cannot come from Prop. 63 funds. Officials don’t anticipate that will be a problem, however.
Activists are pleased. Orange County’s Carla Jacobs, who has seen mental illness devastate her family, has been on the county to act for years. We asked her if this is a good step.
“It’s an excellent good step,” she said by email. “It appears as if the County Department of Behavioral Health is approaching use of Laura’s Law sincerely for Orange County. It will save the county money and lives.”
We’ll see. The plan will go to committees over the next few months, and public hearings will be held. Meantime, you can weigh in below in the comments section.
Contact the writer: tsforza
FIVE-YEAR LOOK BACKS
If you liked the above piece by Teri Sforza of the OC Register, then this five-year-old Watchdog piece by her, titled “County retirement system seeing red — Supervisor John Moorlach sees no sustainability in the beaten down pension fund,” will be a fun read for you. For perspective, the UAAL for OCERS is now $5.7 billion (63 percent funded).
Each week, The Watchdog asks this question of one elected official. This week, the respondent is Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach.
Q. If you could cut one thing from the budget, what would it be and why?
MOORLACH: Let me tell you a nightmare story that hasn’t hit the papers yet. Our retirement system, in the month of June, had a net decrease in asset value of $293 million. We contribute $306 million a year to the plan – so whatever
we’re contributing has already been lost.
So when they lose that amount of money, how is it made up? They’re at a negative for the year to date, minus 3 percent earnings. They have to be positive 8 percent to make everything work. So we’re 11 percent behind. That adds to what the county will have to pay to fully fund pensions for retirees.
In 2001, the Board of Supervisors awarded retroactive pension increases to thousands of employees. It allowed them to retire as early as age 50, with pensions that paid 90 percent of their final salaries for the rest of their lives. That decision could cost the county between $100 million and $200 million.
Before the 2001 vote, our retirement system was fully-funded. A recent estimate found that it’s now underfunded by $2.7 billion. That money would have to come out of taxpayers’ pockets.
We’ve filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the retroactive portion of the 2001 decision. But, to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again, we’ve put an initiative on the November ballot that will require the voters to approve pension plan enhancements. We’re saying, bring it to the voters. Anything that creates immediate cost, bring it to the voters. They’re the ones on the hook. They’re going to have to watch services be cut to pay for these benefits. They’re going to look and say, ’Wait, we don’t get this kind of retirement package, we don’t get to retire at 55 with nearly full pay. What’s wrong with this picture?’
Let the unions make their case to the people, instead of just three county supervisors. Let the people examine and approve future increases to employee pensions.
San Francisco County has been doing this for years. The city of San Diego recently approved a similar charter amendment. And San Francisco’s retirement system is 107 percent funded. Ours is 73 percent funded. That makes a dramatic difference in how much they’re paying every year.
I’m saying, hey, this is a tool that is working in another county, why don’t we take the union pressure off of three electeds, the majority of the Board of Supervisors, and have them convince you that they should have an increase? Ballot measures to increase retirement benefits in San Francisco have passed. Most have passed. We’re not saying “Don’t do it,” we’re just saying “Make your case to the 3 million people who’ll be paying for it.”
It doesn’t fix what’s happened in the past, but over the next 10, 20, 30 years, it can prevent more problems. It’s a vehicle that says, ‘Look. Elected officials are under too much pressure from employee unions to give benefits. Benefits that have to be paid by taxpayers, but are now unsustainable.’
I think that’s a word that every municipality has to be talking about – sustainability. How can we continue granting these kinds of benefits and then be able to afford them?
Background on Chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, John Moorlach:
· Was derided as “Chicken Little” while running for county treasurer in 1994 against Bob Citron, for predicting doom in the county investment pool.
· Has sported license plates saying DULLCPA and – after his predictions on the investment pool came true and $1.64 billion was lost – SKYFELL.
· Represents the second district (including Costa Mesa, Cypress, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, Seal Beach and Stanton).
· Graduated from CSU Long Beach, 1977; Certified Public Accountant, 1978; completed studies for Certified Financial Planner, 1987.
· Was Vice President of Balser, Horowitz, Frank & Wakeling, an Accountancy Corporation; administrative partner of its Costa Mesa office.
· Appointed county treasurer in 1995, after Citron was forced out; reelected twice.
· Won seat on Board of Supervisors in 2006.
· Has had extra training in public finance and employee pensions.
· Active in Old Courthouse Museum society; Orange County Historical Society; Christian Business Men’s Committee; Noble Viking Charities of Orange County; Defend the Bay; Orange County Freedom Committee.
· Married, three children.
In my role as a regular column contributor to the Daily Pilot, my submission for September was titled “School vouchers: A what-if scenario – Initiative would offer an opportunity to reduce taxes, improve education, and stimulate our economy.” This would be the first time that this topic would be put before the voters of California. The public teacher unions had significant resources to mount an effective opposition campaign. The topic of school vouchers certainly provides for a healthy debate. A piece by a retired teacher in opposition to Proposition 174 abutted mine. Here were my thoughts:
Have you ever wondered what would happen if . . .?
What if the school voucher initiative passed? What if 1,000 students leave the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and enroll in existing and newly established private schools? Would the district suffer? What would be the financial repercussions?
At the end of the school year in 1992, our district had 25 schools in a geographical area of approximately 30 square miles. Sites included 15 elementary schools, two kindergarten centers, one primary center, and one alternative education center. The average daily attendance for elementary and secondary students was around 16,500, and adult attendance was 1,465.
The general fund expenditures incurred by the district totaled $79,354, 312, or roughly $4,400 per student. Total expenditures were $94,495,947, or roughly $5,300 per student.
The general fund revenues came from state and local sources (87.3 percent), special education revenues (6 percent), federal (3.1%), interest income (2.2%), and the much bally-hoohed lottery (1.4 percent). The general fund expenditures were for salaries and employee benefits (87.6 percent), contracts and operating expenses (7.9 percent), books and supplies (3.1 percent), capital outlays (1.1 percent), and other (1.3 percent).
If 1,000 students left the district, it would lose a little more than $4 million in state revenues. But it would also be able to cut more than $5 million in expenditures. This would give the district an additional $1 million – dedicate it toward books and supplies and we’ve given this annual expenditure about a 50 percent long-overdue increase.
The state would provide vouchers to the former students for conservatively $2.2 million and keep the difference of $1.8 million. If our district is the average for all of this state’s some 1,000 districts, the state would find new money of $1.8 billion. Why vote for a sales tax increase?
The district would have to scale back. Salaries would be the major area to be impacted. Teachers, administrators and support staff that are terminated could be hired by the private schools. The net transfer may not be that dramatic. Unfortunately for those transferring, private school salaries and employee benefits may not be as attractive as the district’s. However, this may equalize over a short period of time as both public and private schools will be competing to attract the best qualified employees.
The district already has experience in closing school campuses and renting them out. This can be done again. It may generate additional funds for the district.
Our recession has created a sizable amount of vacant commercial space. I can envision schools occupying two or more floors of a high-rise in the South Coast Metro and Fashion Island areas. They could utilize the nearby health club facilities for their physical education programs. This concept is being tried in Des Moines, Iowa. So far, the trend has found that parents in the adjoining buildings that have their children enrolled have reduced their absenteeism and get more involved.
I see the voucher proposal as an exciting opportunity to reduce taxes, improve education, and stimulate our economy. Many private schools have been succeeding without coming close to charging tuitions over $2,600 per student. Our district spends more than twice this amount. I look forward to the creative ideas that will be implemented by both the public and the private schools to provide high achievement results at lower costs.
Our children have to learn to compete in the business world. It would be an outstanding object lesson if their schools had to as well. I don’t think our teachers have anything to worry about. It will be the administrators who will be put to the task. Their abilities will be stretched and tested. With the right spirit and attitude everyone should win.
The voucher initiative deserves a “yes” vote. After all, this is the era of change and choice. Let’s put some pizzazz back into the mix. Hard work is good for our students and their education providers. Choice works at the college level, it’s time to make it available to students from the onset. Let’s give competition a chance. Come on, be flexible.
John Moorlach is past president of the Costa Mesa Republican Assembly.
Rick Reiff’s “OC Insider” column in the Orange County Business Journal, titled “Folino Hosts Palin; Moorlach Raps Brown; Register Speeds Up,” commented on one of my recent UPDATEs. The quote looks profoundly prophetic now.
California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown’s attempt to stop Orange County from rescinding a sheriff deputies’ pension increase has brought this response from Supe John Moorlach: “I heard Jerry speak at a Bond Buyer Conference a few years ago. He lamented that as the mayor of Oakland he had to deal with the dumb laws he signed while governor. It was a throwaway gag line. But, if he is governor again, he will have to deal with these pensions. I hope this odd pattern in his life is not lost on him” . . .
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