Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer this week ignited a spirited debate over a welfare-to-work program for people with mental illnesses after learning about plans by county staff to lower expectations for the program.

Spitzer noted that Tuesday’s proposed approval of $5.7 million in Behavioral Health CalWORKs contracts called for a reduction of participants “engaged in employment activities at discharge” from 29 percent this fiscal year to 25 percent next year.

“Our own internal expectations of performance is getting worse,” Spitzer said. “Why do we keep opening up more opportunities not to work, not to work, not to work?”

Mary Hale, the county’s director of Behavioral Health Services, responded that staff changed the figure because they assumed the economy would make it harder for people to get jobs.

She offered to increase the expectations to 30 percent, saying it seems “very reasonable.”

But Spitzer wasn’t finished, saying it was the staff’s attitude about welfare that concerned him.

“The fact that the numbers got there in the first place, that’s what bothers me,” said Spitzer. “We have to set a certain expectation, and that’s supposed to permeate through our respective agencies.”

He also disagreed that it’s getting harder to find work. “There are jobs,” said Spitzer. “I think people are feeling a lot better about the economy.”

A recent forecast by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. projected an extra 22,300 jobs would open up in Orange County this year, a 1.6-percent increase.

But the forecast also estimated that the county will have 5 percent fewer jobs than it did in 2006.

Hale said staff looked at the last four years and used an average in developing the 25 percent figure, but she acknowledged that reducing expectations “looks bad for a government program.”

“We clearly get the importance of getting folks back to work,” said Hale.

Spitzer then asked that the two contractors for the services — College Community Services and the Mariposa Women and Family Center — be required to prepare a white paper on their vision for increasing the number of participants returning to work.

Hale responded that such a request would be “unprecedented.”

Spitzer fired back that “it’s unprecedented” to lower standards. That’s “not how government is supposed to work,” he added.

Supervisor Pat Bates, who is a former social worker, pointed out that Behavioral Health CalWORKs is different from other CalWORKs programs.

“It’s a very complex issue to get people back into the workforce” who have probably been dependent on government support all their lives, said Bates.

Spitzer ultimately backed down from his request for white papers from the vendors.

Social Services Director Michael Riley told supervisors that the program’s target population is especially challenging.

“We’re talking about folks who have never had a history of work,” said Riley. “It’s not a matter of lowering our expectations. We recalibrated them” based on changing expectations from the state and federal governments.

Spitzer once again was displeased by staff’s explanation. Recalibration, he said, “is bureaucratic speak. That is what people hate about government.”

When government officials lower expectations, Spitzer said, they “come up with a cute word,” adding that he has respect for Riley.

Spizter said he understands that some of the participants will be on government assistance their entire lives but would like to know what portion of the population that staff believes is unable to hold down a job.

At the end of the discussion, supervisors unanimously approved the contracts.

The county’s Behavioral Health CalWORKs program served 929 people in the second half of 2012, with 140 of them “engaged in employment activities at discharge,” according to a county staff report.

You can reach Nick Gerda at, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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