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Byrd Alzheimer's Center seeks $5 million in funding from state

TALLAHASSEE — There's hardly a worse time to be begging the Legislature for state funding, but after getting no money last year, officials with the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute are desperately doing just that.

They're seeking at least $5 million for the gleaming institute on the University of South Florida campus, and they warn of dire consequences if they don't get it: losing their federal designation as an Alzheimer's research center.

"You have no chance of getting it with no state funding," said Dr. Stephen Klasko, chief executive officer of the institute and dean of the USF College of Medicine. "They would look at a state-funded center with no state funding as a center the state doesn't want to support."

The Byrd Institute opened in 2007 with $15 million in annual state funding as the vision of former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, whose father died of Alzheimer's in 1998. Last year, when a deal was cut to affiliate the institute with USF, no money was allocated. Last fall, in the wake of the lost state money, the institute laid off 19 workers and cut other expenses.

Right now, there's nothing in the House budget for the Byrd Institute and only a placeholder in the Senate budget. Lawmakers say they'll work on it when the chambers meet in conference to finalize the budget next week.

"I think the state has an obligation here," said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who has relatives dealing with the disease. "If they weren't going to ante up, then they shouldn't have created it to begin with."

Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, is working on the issue in the House. "I think, at this point, this is where the rubber meets the road; they're going to have to have us put in that minimum funding in order to be eligible for those federal drawdown dollars and grants to keep the center going."

The problem is the institute's prized designation as an Alzheimer's Disease Research Center is up for renewal next month. As an ARDC, the Byrd Institute gets a five-year, $7.5 million grant, access to national research data, the prestige to attract top researchers, clinical trials and more.

Klasko called it "almost like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," and said it puts Tampa at the "center of Alzheimer's activity in the state."

But without state funding, Klasko isn't even sure the institute will apply for renewal. And it would have to wait a few years for another chance.

Klasko says the institute has $8 million in reserves, and he thinks that could last less than a year. He says it needs $9 million a year just to maintain the level of research it's doing and keep the place running.

"Could we keep the lights on for less? Yes, we could," Klasko said, but he said they cannot let its scientific purpose wane.

Already, the merger with USF has allowed the institute to cut administrative costs, in addition to bringing all the Alzheimer's researchers together. The latter, Klasko said, has scientific and revenue advantages.

The relationship with USF is set to be put into state statute this year under pending legislation.

Byrd Alzheimer's Center seeks $5 million in funding from state 04/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 16, 2009 10:39pm]
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