Coastal Post Online


December, 2003

AIDS Commissioners Resign;
 Wrong Funding Cuts Are The Issue For Marin Programs
By Karen Nakamura

   It comes down to the people's voice being heard and having valid suggestions incorporated into governing policies.Without that voice, democracy is lost. From that voice, as contentious and diffuse as it may be, good governance evolves.
   Once again the Marin AIDS Commission, facing a third year of decreased funding, is under siege, locked in a battle with the Marin Health and Human Services Department (HHS), which oversees the Commission. The fight is the same as last year: community/client input into funding distribution.
   A year ago things looked pretty good. HHS, responding to the previous year's complaints from the Commission that its input was ignored, formed a committee with the commission to ensure that the 03-04 cuts would reflect community concerns. The commission's distribution priorities were put forth with recommendations. Evenhandedness between large agencies and smaller direct service organizations was discussed. Technical/legal necessities were incorporated. Hope was in the air.
   Since the 03-04 funding distribution in July, however, the situation has deteriorated to the point where three commissioners have quit in protest. They include two founders of the commission, Rev. Dave Martin of the Marin AIDS Innerfaith Network (MAIN) and Barney Pia of the Positive Center. These two organizations had their funds drastically cut in both the 02-03 and 03-04 funding budget. But they're not the only ones resigning. From the at-large sector, Mark Haven has joined forces. 
   In his letter of resignation to the Commission's president, Betsy Gornet, Rev. Martin had this to say.
   "We are at an important juncture in state and federal funding trends with regard to AIDS services specifically and health and human services generally. For two consecutive years I have heard commissioners living with HIV/AIDS speak in unison regarding funding priorities, only to have the County Department of Health and Human Services instead cut direct services disproportionately, especially food, emergency funds, acupuncture and vitamin vouchers."
   Rev. Martin later told the CP "In the last 3 years Ryan White funds have diminished. During that time the Commission has had very minimal substitutive input regarding the distribution of those shrinking dollars."
   These commissioners, and others, have concluded that contrary to federal Ryan White fund requirements of community input, this component is being ignored by the very department the commission was legally mandated to advise. This includes the nearly yearlong committee/HHS negotiations.
   The perception is all the "meaty contracts" appear to be going to administrative slots and large agencies. And, while a priority poll clearly showed clients' desire for case managers, many felt the eight managers could have been cut by one or two to save other programs. The Food Pantry, for example, was cut 30% from $147,969 (02-03) to $106,746 (03-04). This means clients, who used to get a bag of groceries every week, now get one every other week. In contrast, case management was cut 4% from $282,855 to $271,773 in the same time period.
   As Commissioner Gregory Giorgi pointed out in the CP's July, 2003 issue, "What was the reason for the meetings and the poll if our input had no chance of being considered? What's even worse is if we eliminate two case managers, it would make up most of the cuts in other programs."
   An outside consultant, Michael DeMayo has been brought in to look at, among other things, possible case manager duplication of services. The workings of the Commission and select programs are also being looked into.
   One commissioner pointed out that though he welcomed a neutral investigation, the consultant came at a cost of $20,000. "It could have gone to direct services." While possible collusion between big money service providers and HHS officials has not been officially discussed, it's an issue simmering just beneath the surface.
   Perhaps the two straws that broke the camel's back were recent changes in the agenda at Commission meetings. The community comment period was moved from the near top of the agenda to the bottom. This acts to decrease the number of speakers. Not everyone, especially the disabled, can stay through the entire meeting. The second problem is even those comments are not recorded so good ideas are lost. It's a case of "denuding individual comment", as one Commissioner stated.
   Ultimately, the Marin Board of Supervisors runs the Marin AIDS Commission and appoints its members. Commissioners have written letters in protest to that august body but so far with no reply. In the meantime, HHS is rumored to have advised Commissioners that it's not appropriate to go around their authority and should stay within the chain of command. 
   District 2 Supervisor Hal Brown, was asked about the perception that HHS is ignoring the Commission. "I understand that an outside consultant was brought in and is even now looking at both how the cuts were arrived at and how the Commission itself is run. Is it going in the wrong direction, are there forces that are dominating to the detriment of others and the like. But I haven't seen any results. [HHS Director] Larry Meridith hasn't briefed us yet so we can only wait until that happens. But I'm definitely paying attention." 


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