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News: 06/01/2015

Governor wants to close SDC in three years

Just when local folks started thinking they had a pretty good handle on managing the ultimate closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) and the fate of its 400-plus severely disabled residents, politics came crashing in, skewing everyone’s well structured plans and setting off a scramble to cope with the unexpected new timelines suddenly imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown’s office on May 14. Brown is calling for a closure plan to be presented to the legislature no later than Oct. 1 this year, and for ultimate closure of SDC by 2018, and closure of the remaining two developmental centers in California by 2021.

“This was a total, blindsiding shock,” Kathleen Miller said. “This is heartbreaking news, but most troubling about it is the timeline of Oct. 1 in the plan, and timeline of 2018 for the closure. It’s too fast.” Miller is president of the SDC’s Parent Hospital Association (PHA) and has been working with state and local officials for years, representing families and guardians of the center’s residents, including her autistic son, Dan.

Miller and others who have been working to ensure the well being of the people living and working at SDC – Sonoma Valley’s largest employer – suspect that ongoing negotiations between the state and federal agencies funding the developmental center operations may be behind the decision to jumpstart the final push to close the state’s developmental centers, a form of communal care that has become anathema to some patient rights groups and the federal government in recent years.

Federal mandates now call for considering the closure of all communal housing and placing all developmentally disabled persons into residential homes of no more than four occupants, regardless of efficiency or client needs and desires. SDC lost millions in Federal funding for four of its Intensive Care Facilities two years ago, and the remaining centers, Fairview in Costa Mesa and Porterville near Bakersfield, have been threatened with similar losses in Federal funding.

A coalition of public and private agencies has been working for over a year to work out optimal ways to transition the remaining residents and to use the SDC’s over 700 acres of open space for the highest public good. The Coalition consists of the county’s Board of Supervisors, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the Regional Parks Department, the county Water Agency, private groups such as the Sonoma Mountain Preservation Group and the Sonoma Ecology Center, and legislators, including Senators Mike McGuire and Lois Wolk and Assembly members Bill Dodd and Jim Wood.

“We want to assure a place for the Coalition in any planning efforts going forward,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said from Sacramento, where she was taking part in two days of meetings between the California League of Counties and state legislators on major issues they will be dealing with, with the SDC’s fate but one of many. “We want a seat at the table.”

The Coalition would also like to have serious discussions about using the existing SDC property to continue services for the developmentally disabled. “There are not a lot of houses on the market or land to construct houses without a long process of rezoning,” Gorin said. “Here we have the land and can create partnership with Regional Centers and the state to create a variety of housing for residents.

Third, the Coalition would like to “have a conversation regarding public and undeveloped lands, and continue with state parks too, for annexation into the Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park,” Gorin said.

The May revise to Gov. Brown’s proposed 2015-2016 budget includes a $50 million increase “to start developing community resources specific to the needs of residents of SDC prior to the statutorily required SDC Closure Plan as described in Welfare and Institutions Code Section 4474.1 that will be submitted for Legislative approval on Oct. 1, 2015.” The W&I Code Section requires a closure plan to be submitted to the legislature by April 1 of the fiscal year before a closure plan is implemented, and requires legislative approval.

The Oct. 1, 2015, closure plan deadline would allow the closure process to begin in 2016-2017. Delaying the plan submission to April 1, 2016, as proposed by local SDC advocates, would almost certainly delay the process for a year.

The Coalition has found money to finance three public workshops on the fate of the SDC, with the first being held on May 2. A second workshop is tentatively scheduled for fall, with a third next spring or summer. The workshops are gathering a lot of public input on what to do with the residents and property of SDC. The remaining workshops are fairly moot with an Oct. 1 closure plan deadline.

“Our plan was to take 18 months to make sure we could do this right,” said John McCaull, who works for the Sonoma Land Trust and deals with Coalition matters. “We felt the responsible thing to do was to provide recommendations to the state, but make sure we’d done some economic reviews before making recommendations by next May or June. The Governor cut the proposal timeline by two thirds.

“We certainly would have to regroup dramatically to meet an October deadline,” McCaull said. He was heading to Sacramento to work on pushing that deadline back.

McGuire, Wolk, Dodd and Wood signed a May 20 letter addressed to the chairs of the senate and assembly budget committees.

The letter stated: “We ask that the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees consider a more reasonable timeline to allow better planning to ensure patient health and safety, community preparedness, and the livelihoods of employees and their families.

“Three years is too short of a timeframe to address the complex needs of these residents when you consider the significant gap in services that exists between those offered at the SDC and those currently available in the community. The other developmental centers have been given until 2021 to transition their residents to community settings, while SDC has been singled out for an inappropriately short timeline for closure.

“Community leaders and stakeholders believe the Administration’s proposal is a haphazard plan to shut the doors of the SDC without regard to patient health and safety. A longer and more thoughtful approach for transitioning residents to other settings is vital.”

Santi Rogers, a veteran bureaucrat and director of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) since early this year, while not taking umbrage at the Oct. 1 date, told the Senate Budget subcommittee that, while having a date certain was not a bad thing, “a realistic time period is subject for negotiation as we move forward.”

The Governor’s budget is currently in the Appropriations Committee and may be finalized in the next few weeks. Brown has managed to get his budgets approved on time for the past two years, so it is expected to be finished and approved by June 30.


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