Jacob calls for more housing, mental health care in State of County speech

SAN DIEGO -- Supervisor Dianne Jacob Wednesday unveiled numerous proposals, including improved mental health treatment and affordable housing, during the annual State of the County speech.

Standing before a full gallery that included leaders from other cities, Jacob said the Board of Supervisors has entered a new era.

Referring to recently elected Supervisors Jim Desmond and Nathan Fletcher, the board chairman said "we've got fresh voices, fresh perspectives. The new faces outnumber the old."

Jacob said she and her fellow supervisors may disagree at times but are already finding some common ground -- unlike the U.S. Congress.

"Here, it's not about red versus blue -- it's about nuts-and-bolts governing," she said.

In the 1990s, the county was a fiscal train wreck with workers taking time off without pay, but that changed when a new group of supervisors turned things around, Jacob said.

"Today, the state of the county is much better because we're no longer debating where to cut," she said. "We're looking at where to spend. And we are -- more on services, more on facilities, more on critical programs."

Jacob said now is "no time to play small ball," as the county needs affordable housing while protecting residents from the biggest natural threat, wildfire. With more than 60,000 homes at risk in the county, "we must find some balance in this battle," she said.

Since the 2003 Cedar Fire, the county has spent $500 million for on suppression efforts such as purchasing more trucks and hiring better-trained firefighters, Jacob said.

"Hope for the best, prepare for the worst and allow more housing -- that's the challenge," she said.

Jacob said that next month, she and Desmond will propose that the county's efforts include requiring better housing materials.

The county must strengthen fire-safe councils and fuel reduction efforts, and push state and federal leaders to eliminate environmental reviews required for brush removal, she said.

Jacob added that there needs to be improved mapping to identify high- risk communities, along with housing dispatchers under one roof to improve response time and save lives.

When it comes to affordable housing, Jacob said the county must add another $25 million to its fund, which could mean 1,000 more homes in the region.

The board recently approved a policy that encourages homeowners to build so-called granny flats on their property, offering more housing for seniors, veterans and homeless people, Jacob said.

The county could also offer permit-ready building plans, which would save residents money, she said.

Jacob said the county is encouraging low-middle income housing with several projects, two of which are underway, for a total of 453 homes.

Because many people living on the streets struggle with mental illness, Jacob said the county must have a better coordinated system of care.

By working with hospitals, business, law enforcement, schools and nonprofit agencies, the county can create a plan that stops the revolving door or emergency rooms and jail cells, she said.

"We spend $650 million a year on behavioral health services," Jacob said. "That's staggering. That's 10 percent of our budget, (but) that doesn't mean we are doing enough or doing it right."

Jacob said that District Attorney Summer Stephan and Sheriff Bill Gore will join her in asking the board to bolster psychiatric emergency response teams, by allowing clinicians to stay in contact with patients and establish PERT teams in schools.

Mental illness often involves substance abuse, and the county recently increased spending by $100 million to help over 17,000 people, Jacob said.

"We are radically transforming the delivery of care, connecting patients with treatment," Jacob said. "If we can successfully manage those with mental illness and get them housing, we can turn this crisis into a solution."

She told the audience about a man named Ryan, a sexual abuse victim who cycled through clinics and courtrooms and made several suicide attempts before receiving treatment, housing and job training.

Wednesday, he is in recovery, "but it took more than 20 years to connect him with the right kind of help," Jacob said. "As long as behavioral health services are fractured, people like Ryan will fall through the cracks."

The Sheriff's Department says there are at least 100 people with behavioral health problems who wind up in jail an average of more than 14 times a year, according to Jacob. "That's nearly 1,500 arrests," she said, adding, "These people don't belong behind bars. These people need treatment."

As more families struggle to care for family members with Alzheimer's disease and other memory loss-related conditions, Jacob announced a $1 million voucher program that will help with caregiver expenses.

"We are fighting like hell to give families help and hope," she said.

Jacob said the county has more than $745 million in projects that will be started or completed over the next two years, including a nature center in Santa Ysabel, a campground in the Tijuana River Valley and an enhanced regional emergency communication system.

However, "public safety must remain our top priority," Jacob said, crediting county law enforcement for their daily efforts.

Toward the end of her speech, Jacob said she and Fletcher are poised to ask their colleagues to move forward on a proposal to give residents a choice when it comes to their energy provider.

The county government buys the bulk of its electricity from providers other than San Diego Gas & Electric, Jacob said, adding that eight local cities, including San Diego and Oceanside, are moving toward energy choice.

"If the county can shop for energy, why not the rest of us?," she asked.

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