In my last piece on California’s 2011 realignment of health and human Services programs, I noted that the transfer of fiscal and programmatic responsibility from the state legislature to county boards of supervisors significantly reshapes the context in which advocates, stakeholders, and community members must pursue their goals for foster care, child welfare, and community mental health programs.
For the past two years, Alameda County advocates, community-based organizations, public agencies, and elected officials have been engaged in an ongoing dialogue about what realignment ‘means.’ I have argued, and continue to argue, that realignment means counties have new choices about how to manage and prioritize many vital programs serving vulnerable children and community members.
Counties are empowered to make new choices by the flexibility granted in legislation, and the scope of possibility is broadened by increased revenue derived from California’s recovering economy. In proposing realignment, Gov. Jerry Brown was explicit about his intention to grant flexibility, operating from the general principle that California’s size and complexity, and the diversity among its 58 counties, makes increasing local control both attractive and appropriate.
Among the goals of realignment in his 2011-12 proposed budget, Brown included “to move government closer to the people,” and “provide as much flexibility as possible to the level of government providing the service.” This past year, he advanced another major policy overhaul from this same position: the Local Control Funding Formula, which grants school districts additional flexibility in how to use K-14 funds.
Realignment provides each county with a proportion of the total revenue derived from the state sales tax and vehicle license fee, meaning that funds for these programs come from an annual proportion and not a fixed allocation. As California has continued to recover from the great recession, total revenue has grown and with it the value of each county’s share.
Counties can’t do whatever they want with the growth. They can’t, for instance, backfill cuts to public protection, or apply it against unfunded pension liability. For the most part, the dollars have to stay within the broad range of programs included in realignment, but that still gives them plenty of new choices.
The Department of Finance, Legislative Analyst’s Office, various non-profit policy agencies like the California Budget Project, lobbying firms, and others have all made their own revenue projections of just how much growth we should expect. These estimates vary significantly, but in the context of the recovering economy, all the projections foresee many millions of new dollars, year after year. And in fact, actual total realignment revenue growth seems to be outpacing even the rosiest estimates.
Over time, counties have come to a consensus about the new set of options that realignment provides. Advocates initially organized and activated in response to a set of fears, mostly derived from several years of program cuts at all levels of government that we all endured through the recession. County budgets were full of holes, and we worried that it would be tempting to use realignment growth and flexibility to backfill previous cuts or satisfy unmet demands of politically powerful but unrelated constituencies.
As powerful as the fear of a bad outcome, though, was the concern that without a new degree of organization and attention towards local systems, the community simply wouldn’t know what was going on, and wouldn’t have an opportunity to express their priorities and interests.
There is some evidence that those early worries were warranted. For instance, in some counties funds have been diverted from transitional housing for former foster youth to other, unknown purposes, or have been diverted from children’s programs to services for other constituencies without any public discussion.
These actions would seem to reinforce an interpretation of realignment as presenting a new threat to the safety net. However, perhaps owing to the very significant growth in total available revenue, many counties have made choices that underscore the opportunities presented by realignment.
Here are a couple quick examples of how counties can (and do) take advantage of realignment flexibility and growth to better serve their communities:
Flexibility: Counties can re-prioritize funding to tailor programs to the needs of their communities. Los Angeles County was able to redirect dollars from an under-performing, optional child welfare program to hire new public health nurses to serve foster children.
Growth: Counties can invest new revenue growth to expand programs to address unmet needs in the community. Alameda County plans to invest realignment growth to expand Adult Protective Services, which responds to allegations of elder abuse and had suffered severe cuts during the recession.
Realignment also presents counties with new opportunities to leverage federal funding. Counties can use flexibility or growth (or both) to generate new revenues by investing in programs for which the federal government provides matching dollars. Given this incentive, there was concern among some stakeholders that counties would shift dollars away from specialized, state-only programs to federally matched programs. And indeed, this does seem to be happening in some jurisdictions. A large county in Southern California reduced investment in a previously state-only funded housing program and shifted the dollars to a similar, federally-matched program.
Each of California’s 58 counties has unique needs, unique constituencies, and unique pressures weighing on its public systems. Opinions are certain to vary widely on priorities for investing growth, or in the wisdom of shifting resources from one use to another. With new choices and new public funds, come new responsibilities. The advocacy effort that I’ve been leading in Alameda County has focused not on the specific needs or interests of a particular stakeholder or constituency, but on the values that should underpin counties’ decision-making about how to take advantage of realignment.
Our refrain has been “transparency, accountability, and participatory decision-making,” principles that, of course, must be translated into practices on the ground. Foster Youth Alliance’s board of supervisors and public agency partners have been receptive to our approaches, and we’ve had many conversations about the issues. I’m increasingly confident that we’ll develop a model of local planning that is tailored to the local political reality, accounts for the changes under realignment, and embodies our declared principles.
In coming weeks, I’ll continue to explore the development of our advocacy efforts and process, but will also focus on particular program by program decisions being made by counties around the state.
Reed Connell is the Executive Director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance.