Santa Clara County officials approve budget over jail objections
Santa Clara County Government Center located at 70 W. Hedding Street in San Jose. Photo by Newsha Naderzad.

Santa Clara County officials approved the budget for the coming year, ignoring last-minute objections from residents over hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for a new jail.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Thursday to approve the $11.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2022-23, which starts July 1. The majority of the county’s expenditures go toward health care and government operations. This year’s appropriations represent a 17.5% increase over last year, due primarily to growth in the cost for salaries and benefits for the county’s more than 22,000 workers.

County Executive Jeff Smith said in his budget message the county will continue to invest in social safety net services that have become more critical to residents because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the crisis, many county employees have served as disaster service workers doing testing and other essential public health work.

According to the budget, the county is funding assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) services and the public health programs run through the Vietnamese American Service Center. The county opened the center earlier this year in San Jose as a one-stop shop for health and human services for the more than 140,000 Vietnamese residents who live in the city. Santa Clara County has seen a positive response to the center, as well as to its Behavioral Health AOT program approved last year under Laura’s Law. The program mandates court-ordered psychiatric treatment for individuals with severe mental illness.

The county plans to build new health clinics in South County and add an adolescent psychiatric facility and behavioral health services center at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. The county hospital, which is grappling with labor problems, higher drug expenses and a shortfall in federal relief funds, is receiving more than $3 billion.

Supervisor Otto Lee said he was grateful to county workers for producing the budget, but said growing inflation and an unstable stock market could spell trouble for county residents.

“It’s not exactly going to be easy times to come for the next months or even years,” Lee said, adding he’s seen firsthand the growing homeless crisis in the county’s encampments.  “We’ve got some hard work ahead.”

Building a new jail

The most controversial item in the budget is a $689 million new jail. The board voted 3-2 in January to approve a 500-inmate maximum security facility despite hundreds of people who challenged the need for a jail. Supervisors Mike Wasserman, Joe Simitian and Lee voted for the jail and Susan Ellenberg and Cindy Chavez opposed it. Smith initially estimated the jail would cost $390 million. The board also voted to develop a standalone mental health treatment center for inmates. The budget includes roughly $1 million to develop plans for this facility.

Chavez and Ellenberg asked the clerk to record their continued opposition to the jail.

“Though obviously I was disappointed that my motion to remove the jail from the current budget fell short three votes, I’m certainly not prepared to a cast a no vote entirely on today’s budget,” Ellenberg said, noting this would jeopardize services, salaries and programs that would affect many of the county’s nearly two million residents.

Earlier this year, Ellenberg and Lee declared Santa Clara County to be in the midst of a mental health and substance use crisis, citing an increase in suicides and drug overdoses and an inadequate number of treatment beds, among other things.

Wasserman, who terms out this year, defended his decision to support a new jail, saying it’s unfair to keep people locked up in dilapidated buildings. He also expressed optimism about funding set aside to plan a mental health treatment facility, even if there are no details yet about its location, size or design.

“We’ve taken the first step in the right direction to make a mental health facility in Santa Clara County a reality,” Wasserman said.

The majority of residents who called in during the final budget hearing protested the jail and expressed disappointment with Smith and the supervisors for not exploring alternatives to incarceration.

“What we have learned this year, Supervisor Lee, is that we cannot trust your words,” said Jen Myhre, a senior organizer with SURJ @ Sacred Heart, noting Lee spoke out against incarceration in favor of enhanced mental health treatment in March 2021. “You voted to put incarceration first.”

Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, lanced the supervisors for ignoring an opportunity to invest more heavily in mental health treatment. According to data from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, approximately 25% of inmates have serious mental health disorders.

“When this county wants to pivot and realistically explore mental health facilities, we won’t have the money,” Jayadev said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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