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State budget freeze poses challenge in public safety, behavioral health

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In this March 5 image, Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, listens to Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, during a floor session of the Senate. Howell, chairwoman of the Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee, warned a panel on mental health services Wednesday: “This is really going to be austere.”

Faced with an “austere” state budget outlook amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia legislators are looking for ways to provide more compensation to state police to reverse a rapid increase in turnover among sworn officers, while pushing for better training of law enforcement officers in how they deal with the public.

At the same time, lawmakers are grappling with a crisis in state mental hospitals, with two institutions closed to new admissions because of coronavirus outbreaks that have killed six patients and overcrowding that has worsened since Virginia began reopening its economy after the pandemic nearly shut it down.

The solution to both problems will require money that the state may not have — either for public safety or behavioral health — as Gov. Ralph Northam prepares a new forecast for tax revenues to support spending in the two-year state budget, which has been in jeopardy since the day the General Assembly adopted it in March.

“This is really going to be austere,” Senate Finance & Appropriations Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, warned a joint subcommittee on mental health services during a meeting on Wednesday.

Two days after attending a meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Revenue Estimates, Howell does not have high hopes for additional revenue to support about $2 billion in new spending that the assembly approved in the budget and then suspended because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“It isn’t going to be good,” she glumly told the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Commonwealth in the 21st Century.

Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said Wednesday that he still expects a loss of about $1 billion in revenues for each year of the budget, despite ending the fiscal year on June 30 with a revenue loss about 75% less than the state had feared.

“We’re in a much better place than many,” Layne said in an interview, “but anybody who thinks we’re going to have additional spending, that’s not being realistic about the situation we’re in.”

“We’re in a recession, and we’re in a pandemic that isn’t over yet,” he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, Howell was part of a Senate Finance public safety subcommittee meeting in which Virginia State Police reported 283 vacancies among its sworn officers. It also reported the escalating loss of troopers far faster than the law enforcement agency can replace them with the dwindling number of recruits who survive training. The agency also has 146 vacancies in civilian jobs.

State police Superintendent Gary Settle told subcommittee members that his agency has lost 14 sworn officers to retirement in the past month for a total of 39 in the first seven months of this year, compared with 43 in 12 months last year. The agency has lost 76 officers to a combination of retirements, resignations and transfers to other law enforcement agencies this year, compared with 126 in all of 2019.

The budget adopted on March 12 includes raises of 2% the first year and 3% the second for sworn state police officers, as well as a salary adjustment of $110 for each year of service to ease “compression” that can result in more recently hired officers making more than their veteran supervisors.

But the money for those raises is part of a $265.2 million compensation package for state employees and state-supported local employees, including sheriff’s deputies, that the assembly froze on April 22 in response to the crippling of the state economy during the public health emergency.

The Senate had favored a different approach for funding a new state police salary scale with a $4 surcharge on vehicle registration fees, but the idea died in conference committee negotiations with the House of Delegates, which preferred to compensate police through the general fund budget.

“It’s something we need to look at in the future,” said Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax.

Virginia State Police isn’t the only law enforcement agency with budget problems. The assembly suspended almost $75 million in new spending for public safety in the budget — $31.5 million this year and $43 million next year. Sheriff’s departments had expected a 2% bonus on Dec. 1 and a 3% raise next July.

Keeping veteran officers and training new ones has become harder because of what Settle called “the stressors of law enforcement” in a year than began with a gun rights rally in and around Capitol Square that drew an estimated 22,000 people and then intensified with sometimes violent protests in Richmond and other parts of the state over police treatment of Black people after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

“The environment is very challenging,” the superintendent told the subcommittee. “I’m willing to embrace whatever ‘what’s next’ is.”

Subcommittee Chairwoman Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said in an interview that calls to “defund” police departments have been misunderstood. She said the state should “repurpose” police funding to pay for community services that relieve police from having to respond with potential lethal force to people in crisis.

At the same time, the state is pushing to revise its training standards for 476 law enforcement agencies to train officers against bias in policing and how to de-escalate a potentially violent confrontation, such as someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

“We need to address the bias in police departments,” Lucas said. “We know there is racial profiling going on.”

However, she added, “We can’t address our issues in the commonwealth without providing public safety for our citizens.”

In behavioral health, COVID-19 has turned a bad situation into a crisis at state mental hospitals and training centers for people with disabilities, now operating with more patients than beds since Virginia began to ease restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“The reopening has really led to this severe census crisis,” Alison Land, commissioner of behavioral health and developmental services, told the mental health subcommittee.

The epicenter of the crisis is at Piedmont Geriatric Hospital, about 55 miles from Richmond in Nottoway County. Six patients have died out of 23 confirmed with COVID-19, and seven employees also have contracted the virus. The state has closed admissions to the hospital and to Southern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Danville because of coronavirus outbreaks.

At the same time, other state geriatric units are operating beyond capacity at Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute in Marion (117%), Catawba Hospital in Salem (115%) and Eastern State Hospital near Williamsburg (102%). Two other state mental hospitals for adults are operating at or above capacity — Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Falls Church and Western State Hospital in Staunton, and three others are almost full.

Other parts of the behavioral health system also have been stricken with the deadly virus. Community residential facilities for people with mental illness, behavioral disabilities or addictions have experienced 55 outbreaks, with 629 confirmed cases and 33 deaths in more than 1,100 licensed facilities.

“We’ve got to get through this pandemic,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, chairman of the joint subcommittee. “We’ve got to get through this budget, because we’ve got a lot of money on hold.”


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