Agency head: ‘Painful’ cuts to mental health services due to budget crunch

Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, described the proposed cuts to her agency as "painful." Screen grab of Georgia General Assembly online streaming

The head of the state agency tasked with helping one of Georgia’s most vulnerable populations said Gov. Brian Kemp’s mandated budget cuts cannot be made without scaling back services.

“Painful” cuts are unavoidable in order to find the $34 million in savings this year and another $45 million next year, said Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

“We took a hard look at how we could streamline everything that we do, and that work will continue,” Fitzgerald told lawmakers at a House-Senate budget hearing. “(But) because of the uniqueness of DBHDD – our dependence on state funds, the wide swath of people that we serve – it was not possible for us to take the cuts without a reduction of services to individuals in this state.”

The majority of the department’s budget – about $1.2 billion of its total $1.4 billion budget – comes from the state. That has made the agency one of the hardest hit by the belt-tightening that Kemp ordered in response to sluggish state revenues and to free up funds for other spending priorities. The agency remains under federal oversight following a 2010 court settlement.

“The safety net is stretched to the max,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said new funds added last session are being shifted to preserve psychiatric crisis services, which she described as the more urgent need. The spending plan also puts emphasis on those currently being served, with trims made to new or underutilized programs. She said staff may need to be reassigned to other roles but that layoffs of full-time employees may be avoided.

State Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican who focuses on mental health issues, said she was troubled by the department’s earlier analysis of the potential impact to services as outlined in earlier budget documents. She described the proposed impacts as potentially “life-robbing.”

In particular, the agency has said cuts to dozens of community service boards would limit their ability to meet a growing demand for mental health services and increase the risk for “impacting increased suicidality, substance use disorders and demands on crisis services,” according to those budget documents.

Dempsey noted past legislative efforts to “build up the safety net,” even when money was not readily available.

“So as we look at these cuts, and we look at things like CSBs and we look at those places where services are delivered to our people, real people who are fighting – fighting for their lives – the loss of services, it’s hard to even imagine right now and how we’re going to deal with this,” Dempsey said.

Kemp’s office, however, pushed back on Fitzgerald’s comments. Spokeswoman Candice Broce said in a statement that the governor’s Office of Planning and budget conducted “an in-depth, comprehensive analysis of every agency’s budget submission.”

“Commissioner Fitzgerald’s claims are not supported by our analysis, nor would we allow such a significant disruption in service to Georgians,” Broce said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

The proposed spending cuts have presented lawmakers with one of the most complicated budgets in years. As they weigh cuts, legislators have also been asked to sign off on another raise for teachers at a cost of $360 million, and some high-ranking leaders say the Legislature owes taxpayers a quarter-point cut on their income tax rate.

Fitzgerald’s presentation was part of a three-day series of budget hearings, which represented the first public airing of some of the specific cuts being pitched. Some proposed reductions, such as to criminal justice services and now mental health, haven’t set well with legislators.

“I cannot see how it’s going to work,” said Rep. Darlene Taylor, a Thomasville Republican. “And a spoonful of sugar is not going to make this go down. We have so many needs that are unmet now, particularly in rural communities.

Taylor continued: “At some point in time, we cannot ignore this. We’re not going to become a state that lets people just wander in the streets. This can’t happen.”