Tuolumne County agencies serving the poor and mentally ill are bracing for hiring freezes and service reductions as state law makers struggle to cut the state budget.

On Saturday, Gov. Gray Davis announced plans to ax $10.2 billion from the state budget with most cuts targeted for schools, services for the poor, roads and county and city governments.

Davis has said the budget crisis might last several years, and that by June 2004, the state could be more than $21 billion in the red.

Tuolumne County Senior Administrative Analyst Daniel Richardson said the county will likely receive less than the nearly $31 million in state revenues the county 2002-03 budget is based on but how much less won't be known until the Legislature finalizes budget cuts next month.

Then the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors will have a budget review in early February, Richardson said, to evaluate where cuts can be made.

Still, he said, county mental health services will likely be hit the hardest.

A private firm, Kings View Tuolumne County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services is contracted to provide mental health and substance abuse services for the county. Kings View, with about 120 staff members locally, is a national private business that receives half of its funding from the state and half from the federal government.

Kings View already laid off 11 employees in September and might have to look at more staff cuts, Richardson said.

Kings View Administrator Karen Miles said she and her adult, senior and child program directors are looking at all programs the agency offers to streamline and reorganize, while still serving roughly 1,500 patients a month.

"We're still number crunching and trying to figure out the realities of what this all means," Miles said. "We will always serve the chronically ill patients those diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorders for example. But we may have to do more one- or two-time crisis interventions rather than longer-term treatment plans for those who are not chronically ill."

She also said that the agency could recommend fewer hospitalizations and more home-care treatments that are less costly.

"It is so sad," said Karen Bachtelle, Kings View's adult program director. "Funding comes and funding goes, but we are good at what we do and we have built a solid program for Tuolumne County.

"Now we are going to have to do that same good job with a lot less money."

At the county Social Services and Child Support Services departments, the directors said they hope to avoid layoffs but will also leave vacant positions unfilled.

"We are down nine positions, and I'm not going to be filling them in the near future," Tuolumne County Social Services Director Kent Skellenger said.

"How can I hire someone to fill these vacant positions, knowing that in a few months I would have to lay them off? It would just not be fair."

Skellenger said he has openings now for six eligibility workers employees who determine who gets government aid through food stamps, health benefits and living assistance.

The agency is also operating without program directors for Child Welfare Services and Adult Protective Services. Neither of those positions will be filled in the foreseeable future.

"It's hard to say what is more important: welfare, Adult Protective Services or child welfare," Skellenger said. "We need to do a lot of balancing."

Skellenger said for the remainder of this fiscal year, Tuolumne social service agencies will cut benefits given to the poor, including some reimbursements for medical services.

Cost-of-living-increases on the Cal-Works (formerly Aid for Dependent Children) checks will also be eliminated.

Child Support Services helps custodial parents recover unpaid child support from the other parent.

"We are taking a loss by not receiving our share of a $9 million statewide increase to child support service organizations," Adele Hendrickson, Child Support Services director, said, "so it is not an actual loss of existing dollars, at least this year. Next year it will probably be different."

Hendrickson's department has four staff vacancies, and like Skellenger, she will leave them vacant.

"What's interesting is that we have state-mandated targets (for collections) we are expected to meet, and it will have to be done without additional funding," Hendrickson said.

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