By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

In what Del Norte County officials are calling a crisis of monumental proportions, 22 jobs in the county department of mental health will get the axe Nov. 1.

Budget hearings for the 2001-2002 fiscal year started yesterday with the county board of supervisors. The county mental health department budget was the first on the agenda.

Facing a $1.2 million budget deficit in the mental health budget alone, mental health director Mick Miller said the department has cut everything it can and must now cut people to get back on track.

Ive gone back and cut over $1 million. Every car, one of the two homes and now were down to real human beings, Miller said.

Ten of the 22 positions eliminated are actual lay-offs and the remaining 12 positions are currently vacant and simply wont be filled.

Still, Miller said the impact of losing these workers will be felt throughout the community.

Aside from everyday appointments and regularly scheduled counseling and group sessions, Miller said the department had 57 walk-in crisis cases in the last two weeks. One third of those were people from New York, Colorado and other states.

The department is overwhelmed with demand for care and services, the cost of the services is continually rising and the funding for the department is continually going down, according to Miller and county auditor Christy Babich.

Just this year, the state Legislature cut mental health funding across the state by $58 million.

At the same time, Miller said there has been an overwhelming increase in referrals from the courts, social services, Rural Human Services and other local agencies.

He said last Friday alone, the department got seven emergency calls from Sutter Coast Hospital.

With such a demand and a department short of 22 workers, county supervisor Chuck Blackburn worried about what will happen to the people who need help.

Without your mental health specialists, the people they reach out to will end up in the sheriffs office and the court system and the streets. Its a system thats sick, Blackburn said in an emotional speech.

The supervisors and Miller struggled emotionally for more than three hours yesterday to find a way around the lay-offs, but could not.

The countys general fund budget itself is in the hole by $1.7 million. Thats a separate problem from the Mental Health Department budget, and County Administrative Officer Ben Angove said hes still waiting to hear whether the state will help make up the difference.

Even if the state does come through, Angove said it will not solve the problem of the Mental Health Department is facing.

Two of the Mental Health specialists losing their jobs beseeched the board of supervisors to find another way. Not just for the sake of their employment, but because of the service they provide to the community.

I manage the day treatment program which has 40 clients. We are the life-line to these 40 clients. Without day treatment, frankly Im frightened about what will happen. Weve had clients with homicidal ideations, suicidal ideations ... and many horrific problems.

Please reach out to find whatever funding is available to keep this program alive, said Maryann Caldwell.

Another mental health specialist,Va Her, conducts group sessions and personal counseling for Hmong residents with post traumatic distress disorders from the wars in Laos and from the troubles they have adjusting to a completely different culture.

I have been a volunteer translator for the Hmong community for eight years. I finally got a job where I can help my community. Yesterday, I learned I may not be able to help them any longer, she said choking back tears.

Im afraid for them. They have to be able to learn in order to survive. We teach them how to cope.

If there is any...any idea of how to help them, please. God be with them, she added.

Supervisor Blackburn, moved to tears, promised he and the board will work as hard as they can to find another solution.

The board will continue to brainstorm with their staff and director Miller, but in the meantime, the layoffs stand.

Ive been director for 20 years and this is the most difficult thing Ive ever had to do as a professional and as a person. It has been an incredibly hard thing to do, Miller said.

The next scheduled budget hearing is at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 25 in the supervisors chambers.