Saturday, June 2, 2007

Cash cut in model inmate program

The county's lauded treatment plan for the mentally ill loses a quarter of its money.

Rich Mckay
Sentinel Staff Writer

May 31, 2007

The budget of a nationally lauded program that helps mentally ill people in Orange County has been slashed by 25 percent, leaving officials and politicians scrambling to find ways to make up the difference.

"It's going to be a tough, tough, tough year," Orange County Commissioner Linda Stewart said.

The program -- the county's nationally award-winning Central Receiving Center that screens people who might otherwise end up in costlier jail or emergency rooms and diverts them to treatment programs -- had a $3 million budget for the 2006-07 budget year that ends June 30.

But for the next budget year, the program has a budget of $2.25 million, said Donna Wyche, a manager with Orange County's Health and Family Services Department.

Given the state Legislature's promise of impending property tax cuts that will leave cities and towns with less money to spend, Wyche isn't hopeful that the county can step in to make up the difference.

"We're going to have to cut resources," Wyche said. "We're losing the equivalent of 10 beds. People will wait longer for services."

The cuts were made in the state budget, and Wyche is grateful that Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Park, saved the program from even more drastic reductions.

When next year's state budget was being drafted, the program was allocated $1 million.

"We really needed their help, and they scrambled to bring it up to $2.25 million," Wyche said.

Wyche said the Orange County Commission has been good to the program, recently awarding it $206,356 to help pay for long-term housing for residents with mental-health and drug problems.

Two months ago, the center was held up as an "inspiring" program for other communities, praised in a joint study by the National Institute of Corrections and the Council of State Governments.

The study was released in the wake of a statewide crisis during which more than 300 severely mentally ill inmates were kept waiting in jails for treatment beds longer than the 15 days Florida law allows.

The center, which opened in 2003, has screened more than 17,000 residents.

Of the budget cuts, Wyche said, "At this point, I don't know that there's anything to do."

Stewart said she hopes to have a meeting on the receiving center in June to see whether anything can be done.

"There might be some grant money out there," she said.

Rich McKay can be reached at 407-420-5470 or

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