CLEARWATER — Pinellas County's plan to build a health clinic to serve the homeless near the county jail and the area's largest homeless shelter may be in jeopardy.
The County Commission, facing a tight timetable and a host of obstacles, will decide in coming months whether to move forward with the two-story clinic.
Among the obstacles: The $5 million federal grant that will pay for the building requires the clinic to be fully functional by April 30, 2015. The projected completion date is now December 2015, so the county must ask for an extension.
Lynda Leedy, the county's deputy director of health and community services, told the board at a workshop Tuesday that the government typically won't take back grant money if construction is under way.
"I'm not sure what they're going to say when we say we haven't started, we know we're late but we're going to ask the question anyway because it's prudent to do so," Leedy said.
The county also must confirm that local health care providers are still on board to offer in-kind services, equipment and other materials. If not, the county would be on the hook for more operating costs.
The facility is geared toward homeless families, who represent a growing percentage of the county's homeless population. It is projected to serve about 3,700 clients per year. Among the partner providers are All Children's Hospital, BayCare Health System and the Juvenile Welfare Board.
"Once we've built it, it's going to be hard to take it away, so we had better be awfully sure things are locked up for the long term on this, unless we're willing to foot that bill going forward," Commissioner Norm Roche said.
One point of contention with partner providers is the county's plan to seek a special designation from the federal government so the clinic can serve Medicaid clients who aren't homeless. Providers say that will have the county competing with them for patients. County officials disagree, saying there is plenty of unmet demand.
A consultant is working on a feasibility study, expected by May 15, that will answer that question and offer financial projections. The board is set to meet with the partner providers on May 12.
"I think it's difficult for any of our partners to make a firm commitment until they see that feasibility study," acting County Administrator Mark Woodard told the board.
There is also a space problem.
The grant would pay for roughly 16,500 square feet, but county staffers recently went room-by-room with the architect and contractor and learned that the building would have to be closer to 25,000 square feet based on the current wish list, Leedy said.
In addition to primary care, the plan calls for mental health services, dental checkups, gynecological exams and pediatric services. The project also includes a "respite center" for people who have just left the hospital but are too unstable to return to life on the street.
The board granted Leedy's request to spend $14,500 to have the architect and contractor "right-size" the clinic based on input from the partners about what should remain a priority.
Dr. Claude Dharamraj, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, urged the board to move forward with the clinic. She said other grants could help cover operating expenses.
"If you turn money away, it doesn't look too good," she said. "Why would the federal government give you money for something else?"
Commissioner Susan Latvala agreed.
"This got a little crossways and we need to put that behind us," Latvala said. "It's a new day. Let's move forward."