Local News

Legislature appropriates money for Spring Lake, Peace River Center, AVID

- If both budget bills make it through the House and Senate, and if Gov. Rick Scott doesn't line-item veto the projects, AVID will receive $520,000 in state funds to help local middle school students get to college, Peace River Center will be granted $675,000 to help mentally ill kids, and Spring Lake will be able to match $416,000 to a Florida DEP grant and store millions of gallons of stormwater.

There is also $12,000 to help the Boys & Girls Club refurbish a rented building at 248 Pomegranate Ave., northwest of Sebring's downtown. However, Executive Director Woodraun Wright said that will be removed from the legislative budget. He didn't realize that the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs had also requested $84,000 for Highlands County.

As for the Advancement Via Individual Determination, the Legislature approved $523,000 last year, but Scott used his veto pen because it was a local project.

"I would point out that the same project was not vetoed with the Legislature funded it last year," Sen. Denise Grimsley emailed in 2013.

The elective program is open to the sixth, seventh, ninth and 10th grades. Students learn study, leadership and organizational skills, and they're tutored twice a week by South Florida State College students.

Taxpayers have a choice: they can arrest mentally ill people and pay to keep them behind bars, or they can pay to treat them with psychiatric services and drugs.

"Forty to 60 percent of the people in jail probably do have mental illness," said William Gardam, chief executive officer of the Peace River Center. "It's the same with prison; 40 to 60 percent will have a documented mental illness."

Peace River Center has facilities in Polk County, Gardam said, which is where one Community Action Team is also located. However, some families find that too far and too expensive to drive. If funding is approved, $675,000 would base an 11-member Community Action Team at the Children's Advocacy Center in Sebring.

"It is a mobile team that responds to cases 24/7 to remove the risk from the home instead of the individual," Gardam said. If a child is in emotional crisis, the team, which includes a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner, goes into the client's home "to keep the family safe and stable. We try to work with the family so they can stay together."

The result: the emotionally ill child may not be Baker Acted (involuntarily committed for 72 hours), may not stay in a long-term treatment center, may not get hooked on drugs, and may not wind up in jail.

"The team is able to reduce the necessity for a deputy to be involved," Gardam said.

At Spring Lake, improvement district manager Joe DeCerbo spends lots of time dealing with water problems.

"It's no secret how much money we've paid out of reserves for unfunded mandates," DeCerbo said.

The latest: federal efforts to keep pollution out of the Everglades.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold ordered Environmental Protection Agency Director Gina McCarthy to appear in a Miami courtroom in October to explain why the agency hasn't enforced the Clean Water Act in the Everglades for more than two decades.

DeCerbo said Spring Lake has received a $1.2 million Florida Department of Environmental Protection grant, but the district must match 40 percent.

"That would have come out of our reserves," DeCerbo said, but he and Spring Lake supervisors, at a legislative delegation meeting earlier this year, convinced Grimsley, R-Sebring, Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon, and Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to appropriate legislative funding. "If that makes its way through, it will meet of our all water retention storage and water-quality needs."

After Spring Lake was flooded several times by summer rains and sued by a downstream neighbor, DeCerbo and the supervisors became proactive. They cleaned canals, upgraded a pump station and a built a dike to control water flows into Arbuckle Creek, then to Lake Istokpoga, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and the Atlantic estuaries.

Pigman, who doesn't even like talking about the three funding projects for fear he'll jinx them, called this a "far-reaching Highlands County issue, although we have water issues in Glades and the other counties in my district."

More recently, the EPA and DEP have mandated that stormwater be held long enough for phosphorus and other pollutants to sink.

"Sixty percent of the water comes from off site," said DeCerbo. Spring Lake is downhill from orange groves, cattle ranches and Sebring Regional Airport.

Even so, when wastewater reaches Spring Lake, it belongs to the district. "One point eight billion gallons, with a 'B,' went through last year. That's a lot of water."

The reserve won't be a lake, it will be an Everglades style river of grass and weeds that will filter stormwater.

"The phosphorous will be drastically reduced," DeCerbo said.

The House and Senate funding bills must survive a joint legislative budget committee, then each chamber will vote on a unified funding bill. The governor can veto any line item in the budget.