ST. PETERSBURG — Drug addicts, people who have attempted suicide and those in the clutches of psychosis — all come through the doors of one of the county's largest privately run mental health clinics. And their numbers are growing.
But doubts about whether Pinellas County will continue to fund the clinic have forced its leaders to consider laying off staff and turning away patients.
Known as PEMHS, for Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services, the Pinellas nonprofit is locked in a dispute with county officials over nearly $2 million. The county has long matched a portion of a state grant the clinic receives, but county officials no longer believe the law requires them to do so.
The money has paid for around-the-clock nursing and more than a dozen beds in the clinic's Baker Act facility, which takes in people who are deemed a danger to themselves and others. Without the county's money, the organization will have to lay off more than 20 employees and eliminate beds, cutting services for an estimated 1,700 people, said Tom Wedekind, the clinic's executive director.
"This affects an astounding 22 percent of desperate patients turned away at the height of their own or this community's crisis," he wrote to in a letter to Pinellas County commissioners.
Debate over the county's role in supporting mental health clinics is taking place against the backdrop of Kenneth Sprankle's death on Monday in St. Petersburg. Sprankle, 27, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, ran through the city's downtown, chasing pedestrians with an ax stolen from a fire truck. A police officer shot him after he refused to drop the weapon.
St. Petersburg officers have been involved in an unusually high number of fatal shootings this year. Four of the six people killed by police suffered from mental issues.
Sprankle, who had been Baker Acted seven times since March, was a frequent patient at PEMHS as the clinic is the central receiving facility for people held under the Baker Act.
Last year, the clinic took in more than 7,600 people, more than ever before.
Often, it refers patients to other clinics, such as the Suncoast Center, which will also lose its county funding this year. Barbara Daire, the group's director, said Pinellas typically gives the center $300,000, a sum that makes up about 10 percent of its budget.
"Probably less people will be served, but it's not a huge impact on our budget," she said.
Groups like PEMHS that get state grants to care for the mentally ill are required to have a local match, but county officials said they don't think the money has to come from them.
Instead, money an organization already receives from other sources or in-kind donations might be enough to satisfy the mandate, said Gwendolyn Warren, director of the county's health and human services department.
"Over a series of years it became an automatic thing. The agencies requested it and we provided it," she said of the way the county has supported a handful of mental health providers. "Now we're basically saying we'll pay it if it's a requirement, but not if it's a gift."
Positive about future
PEMHS' annual budget is about $14.3 million. In addition to the $1.7 million it receives from the county, the organization also gets about $2.5 million in private donations.
Wedekind said it would be impossible to raise enough money in private donations to spare the St. Petersburg facility from cuts, which would need to be made after the current county funding runs out on Monday.
County officials want the groups to try to find another way to match the state's dollars, but if they can't the county will give them money at year's end. By then, Wedekind said, his group already will have had to make cuts. He has asked the county for a slight reprieve — funding for at least a few more months.
Wedekind said Friday he had a "positive meeting" with the county and is hopeful officials will reconsider their decision.
Warren said she hopes the County Commission will agree to spend the money that normally went to these groups on other mental health projects, though what those might be are unclear. She plans to present the commission with several proposals in December.
"The need for behavioral health services in our community is growing, it is not decreasing," she said.
On this point, Wedekind agreed. When police detain someone who's mentally ill, there are few places they can go other than his St. Petersburg clinic. If budget cuts force him to turn people away, he imagines them waiting in emergency rooms or jail cells until they can be seen by a health professional, as the law requires.
"They can't keep going around in cruisers," he said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.