L.A. County seeks to strengthen the safety net for its neediest residents with funding for the homeless, social workers and healthcare

Los Angeles County pressed forward with an effort to strengthen the safety net for its most vulnerable residents Monday with a budget plan that carves out significant allotments for social services, healthcare and other support for the poor.

The proposed budget is a slight increase from last year, and officials said they are trying to channel some of that money toward helping those who rely on county government for critical services.

The total recommended budget for fiscal year 2017-2018, which begins July 1, is $30.02 billion, an increase of $137 million, or 0.5%, over last year’s budget. More than $600 million will go toward reducing and preventing homelessness, hiring new social workers, improving foster care, treating the county’s sickest patients and diverting individuals with mental illness from jail.

“It is the business of county government, more than any other aspect of government, to be specifically concerned with the safety net,” said County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas by phone Monday afternoon. “These are ongoing commitments, and they are priorities that attach to the safety net.”

County Chief Executive Sachi Hamai said at a news conference Monday that this year was “unusual” partly because of newly available revenue sources, such as Measure H, which voters approved in March. The measure calls for a quarter-cent sales tax to fund homelessness reduction and prevention services countywide.

The measure will provide an estimated $355 million annually to reduce and prevent homelessness. The money is projected to assist 45,000 homeless families and individuals and prevent 30,000 more from becoming homeless in the measure’s first five years. A separate panel has been convened to decide how to divide up the money among 21 strategies approved by the Board of Supervisors.

The county also plans to spend $45 million on 220 new social workers and 100-plus new support staff at the Department of Children and Family Services. This money will help bring social workers’ caseloads down, said Hamai. The budget allocates additional funds for foster care and mental health in the child welfare system.

For criminal justice, the proposed budget includes $4.2 million for defending indigent youth and $90 million for a wide array of jail diversion and re-entry programs, particularly targeting individuals with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues.

In addition, the county will launch Whole Person Care, a five-year initiative to provide coordinated, comprehensive services to L.A. County’s sickest Medi-Cal patients. Funding for the $90-million initiative comes from Medi-Cal 2020, a pool of money for the state’s Medicaid program approved by the federal government in 2015 and lasting through 2020.

The proposed budget includes a slight decrease, from $38.2 to $38.1 million, in funding for the county medical examiner-coroner’s office, which has been struggling with heavy backlogs in autopsies and toxicology tests. That office will see a net decrease of three positions.

Hamai said later in an email that the county had already made “significant strides” to improving operations in the coroner’s office, including budgeting 24 new positions last year. “Our plan now is to assess the impact of these and other personnel changes and then determine how best to move forward,” she said.

The County Board of Supervisors will discuss the budget at a meeting Tuesday and hold public hearings on it in May, before adopting it in late June.

The budget does not currently take into account any proposed cuts at the state and federal levels. “I think there’s too many uncertainties at this time,” Hamai said.

In February Hamai directed all county departments to prepare budget reduction scenarios in case of funding cuts, but she said Monday that the county would not revise its budget until the final state and federal budgets are enacted. Those changes would take place as part of the county’s supplemental budget phase in September.

Ridley-Thomas said he is concerned about proposals to eliminate state and federal funding for key county services. “The most immediate concern we have is the In-Home Supportive Services proposal,” he said. “That’s the most concrete.”

In January Governor Jerry Brown released his proposed 2017-2018 budget, which, among other items, would force counties to shoulder a greater share of the cost of In-Home Supportive Services, a program that pays for low-income elderly, blind or disabled people to receive services at their homes.

More than 216,000 people in L.A. County currently receive these services, according to Ridley-Thomas’ office. The county estimates that the state proposal will result in $220 million in additional costs to the county, effective July 1, and is currently working to oppose the change and mitigate its effects if it is ultimately enacted.

Policy changes proposed by President Trump could also affect L.A. County.

Trump’s “America First” budget blueprint, released in March, would reduce funding for the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Housing and Urban Development, major sources of the county’s discretionary funding. It would also eliminate funding for several programs through which the county receives money, including the Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which helps provide affordable housing to low-income Americans.

Trump has also promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. California currently receives $15 billion annually in federal dollars to fund the state’s Medicaid expansion under the act — funding that would be in jeopardy if the law were to be repealed. However, the act’s future remains in question after Republicans failed last month to garner the support needed to bring a repeal and replace bill to a vote in the House.

In addition Trump has vowed to step up deportations of immigrants and issued an executive order to withdraw federal funding from “sanctuary” jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement officers. Hamai said in her email that the county has complied and will continue to comply with all applicable federal laws, but noted that the term “sanctuary” has not been defined, and that the county has joined litigation challenging the order.

The recommended 2017-2018 budget includes $2 million for the L.A. Justice Fund, which was proposed after Trump’s election and would provide legal assistance for immigrants without legal status who are facing removal proceedings.

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

Twitter: @AgrawalNina

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