County to File Mental Health Mandates Amicus Brief
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously directed the County Counsel’s Office yesterday to file an amicus brief supporting a Sacramento judge’s ruling that could shift as much as $36 million in annual costs of mental health services for disabled students from Los Angeles County to the state.
The motion, by Supervisor Mike Antonovich, also directed county Chief Administrative Officer David E. Janssen to report back within 60 days on the potential impact of the ruling.
Deputy County Counsel Rich Mason told the MetNews he plans to start work on preparing the brief immediately, but noted that state officials have not yet appealed last month’s ruling by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jeffrey L. Gunther. Mason said the notice of entry of judgment in the case, which was brought by San Diego County, was only filed July 26.
State officials have 60 days from that date to appeal, and are expected to do so. Gunther ruled that the state’s policy of deferring nearly all reimbursement for services mandated under legislation adopted in 1984 and 1996 was unconstitutional. The services are usually called AB 2726 and AB 3632 services after the mandating legislation.
Under AB 3632, counties must provide outpatient mental health services, day treatment, or residential care for children with disabling conditions who need such services. AB 2726 added amendments requiring counties to provide out-of-county residential care when appropriate and necessary to enable disabled students to benefit from their educational programs.
“This is a very important matter for counties as well as the state and hopefully will get the attention it deserves at the appellate level,” Mason said. He added that preparing an amicus brief “will take some thought, and that’s what we now have time to do.”
Gunther ruled that deferring reimbursement violated Article XIII A of the state Constitution, added by Proposition 13 in 1978, and Article XIII B, added by Proposition 4 the following year. Those provisions limit property taxes and require the state to reimburse local governments for newly mandated programs and services.
If state funding is not provided, San Diego County does not have to perform the services, Gunther said.
The ruling has no immediate applicability to Los Angeles County, which was not a party to the suit. Mason pointed out last month that while Gunther’s ruling theoretically permits San Diego County to stop providing the mandated services, since the mental health needs of disabled children are at stake unilateral action by counties is unlikely even in the wake of any appellate decision.
The 1984 enactment followed passage of federal legislation requiring that children with disabilities receive a free public school education, and placed the burden of satisfying portions of that obligation on counties.
A Commission on State Mandates rules on claims by local governments for reimbursement of mandated expenses.
San Diego County estimated it spent $9 million last fiscal year, and more than $30 million over the last three years, on AB 3632 and AB 2726 services. But the state appropriated only $1,000 to reimburse all 58 counties for those services for the last two fiscal years, deferring reimbursement of the remainder.
San Diego brought its suit under Government Code Sec. 17612(c), which allows local agencies to seek a declaration in Sacramento Superior Court that an unfunded mandate is unenforceable and an injunction blocking its enforcement.
Gunther, ruling on San Diego County’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, said the county does not have to pay for the services.
“The Court declares that the County of San Diego need not provide AB 3632 or AB 2726 services, absent adequate funding from the State,” he wrote.
Gunther rejected the state’s contention that relief under the statute is available only if the Legislature suspends a mandate or deletes all funding for it, not where payment of reimbursement has been deferred. Attorneys for the state, he noted, argued that since Sec. 17561.5 provides for payment of mandate reimbursement claims with interest, an inference that prompt payment is not required was justified.
“The—argument that the Constitutional provisions and statutory scheme do not require the Legislature to promptly pay the County of San Diego for the unfunded mandate is—rejected by this Court,” Gunther wrote. “The State is prohibited from imposing unfunded mandates on local entities, shifting its financial responsibility for carrying out governmental functions to local agencies, which are ill equipped to assume increased financial responsibilities because of the taxing and spending limitations that Articles XIII A and B impose.”
Los Angeles Principal Deputy County Counsel Thomas M. Tyrrell said last month that Los Angeles County claimed reimbursement for $23.5 million in AB 3632 expenditures and $12.6 million in AB 2726 expenses just for the 2003-2004 fiscal year.
San Diego County Counsel John Sansone said that county’s Board of Supervisors went through a “very thoughtful process for selecting this mandate” as the subject of the action, since federal law imposes the obligation to perform the required services on the state.
If the county is relieved of the mandate, the state must assume it, Sansone said. During the budgeting process last year the state’s legislative analyst estimated the total accumulated deferred mandate reimbursements at $1.2 billion and said deferring payments to counties was “not a wise strategy.”
Sansone said the case was the first he was aware of to be brought under Sec. 17612(c). He questioned whether the state’s argument that, because it appropriated $1,000 each year, it had not “delete[d]” funding within the meaning of that statute would fare any better on appeal than it did before Gunther.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company