A woman stands at a podium.
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg may be part of a 4-1 women majority after the November election. Photo by Brandon Pho.

The county’s top leader is optimistic about the future while acknowledging there’s a long way to go before her vision of community prosperity is achieved.

Susan Ellenberg, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said at the annual State of the County address on Thursday that community safety requires a new definition of a healthy neighborhood; a strong child care program; ways to build out capacity for mental health needs and substance use disorders; and more housing for homeless individuals and families.

But this vision will have to work around tough choices to absorb a projected $158 million budget deficit.

“This year we will commit to maintaining all safety net services but there will be places we will have to say no, and I will not like it,” Ellenberg said at the event.

Her first goal is to build a system of safety not predicated on punishment. She gave the example of how an individual who is picked up by police for a first DUI offense will be taken to Mission Street Sobriety Center instead of jail.

Santa Clara resident Kathy Cordova, executive director of the nonprofit Recovery Café San José, said Ellenberg’s vision for incarceration alternatives and mental health issues resonated with her.

“Another big takeaway was her perspective that all county departments have something to do with safety, for example, a department working on diversity, all that ties back into safety,” Cordova told San José Spotlight.

Ellenberg said the county made major strides in mental health and substance use services last year. She mentioned the groundbreaking for the new 77-bed mental health facility at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and adding 53 beds at San Jose Behavioral Health, along with 28 beds across the street from Valley Medical Center that will be operated by Momentum for Health. But tackling the issue of capacity remains paramount in getting people into treatment.

“Clearly we aren’t done, because treatment isn’t yet available on demand for anyone who is ready to receive it,” Ellenberg said.

Santa Clara County will have a full plate of mental health challenges this year, including the launch of the CARE Act in December, looking into a direct line for TRUST, a non-police mobile crisis team and the implementation of the new conservatorship rules for those with a serious mental illness.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez said after the event that she was adamant about mental health treatment not just surviving budget cuts, but being expanded.

Ellenberg turned her focus to housing, where she said Measure A — a $950 million affordable housing bond passed by voters in 2016 — has been completely allocated. With that allocation, the county is building more than 5,000 apartments, renovating 689 apartments and constructing 56 housing developments across 10 cities.

“We are delivering more than what is promised and delivering it faster,” she said.

Ellenberg, who is passionate about children, said affordable child care has a correlation with the county’s economic prosperity.

“The narrative of child care is shifting from one of sole parental responsibility to one of public good,” Ellenberg said. “Affordable child care keeps families in our cities and that keeps us growing and thriving.”

She said a combination of costs outpacing revenues, state and federal pullbacks and COVID investments that will take a decade or more to be reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will make it difficult to accomplish everything the county wants to do.

“We’re going to have to make choices that will surely please no one,” Ellenberg said.

The deficit stems from the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where public health investments achieved one of the lowest transmission rates and highest vaccination rates in the country, Ellenberg previously told San José Spotlight. The county is still waiting on the federal government to reimburse the expenses. Ellenberg said she expects that to be a slow process.

After the event, Supervisor Sylvia Arenas said she concurred with how Ellenberg interpreted the child care situation. But after Ellenberg’s warnings about the budget crisis, Arenas told San José Spotlight that funding child care services was nonnegotiable.

At last year’s address, Ellenberg laid out a lofty vision for expanding homelessness and mental health services by 2025. She promised more behavioral health and family referrals to permanent housing to achieve “functional zero” — meaning the number of housing placements for families will be greater than the number of families becoming homeless — by 2025.

“We have to continue the progress of reaching functional zero,” Ellenberg said. “We have to focus more intensively on (homelessness) prevention efforts.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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