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Begging shouldn't be necessary

Northside Centers, a private, not-for-profit mental health center in Hillsborough, provides vital community services _ from child abuse counseling to teen parenting programs to community support for the chronically mentally ill _ to more than 5,000 county residents annually. One of Northside's biggest programs is its psychiatric hospital located on the University of South Florida campus. The hospital provides beds for Baker Act patients, people detained under the law because they pose a danger to themselves or others. Those beds are especially needed in Hillsborough, which is still struggling to resolve a critical shortage of beds for the mentally ill.

Northside's ability to continue providing this service, however, is seriously threatened.

Since 1976, Northside has rented space for the hospital from the Florida Mental Health Institute (FMHI) at little cost. The low rent is one of the essential ingredients in the hospital's ability to provide services to those who can't afford to pay for them. Even so, the state Legislature and the Board of Regents decided in 1988 that non-university tenants at FMHI, Northside being the only one, must either be phased out over three years or required to pay full market value for rented space. That means Northside, which can't afford the high rent, has to get out by the end of next year.

Members of Northside's board of directors are now scrambling to find a new home for the hospital. They have contacted local legislators who, while sympathetic, are also predicting a $1-billion shortfall in state revenues this year. Consequently, they haven't been able to offer much hope of help.

What's wrong in all this is that Northside's board members, all volunteers, shouldn't have to go begging state and local elected officials for help in finding a solution to this problem. The decision to kick Northside off the USF campus should have been accompanied by an equally firm commitment from the state to help Northside relocate. If the problem went unnoticed by the governor, then the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) should have brought it to his attention. HRS officials contract with Northside for Baker Act beds and say the psychiatric hospital, which also treats children, is an important link in the community's health care system.

"What you've got is a 32-bed facility, a hospital, that Northside runs that is part of the total system," says Mark Engelhardt, supervisor of HRS' alcohol, drug abuse and mental health program for District 6, which includes Hillsborough. "I'm concerned about the children's unit over there. We can't afford to lose that capacity."

Engelhardt adds, however, that there's not much his agency can do. Again, no resources.

That's no surprise. Last year, Hillsborough had fewer than half the Baker Act beds needed to serve its population adequately, according to the state's own calculations. Even so, Gov. Bob Martinez cut from his budget a $1.1-million request by HRS for a new 30-bed short-term residential treatment facility for Baker Act patients in that county. He also cut HRS' total request for adult mental health care from $8.6-million to only slightly more than $1-million.

HRS officials requested again this year money for the 30-bed facility. Again Martinez left it out of his budget. Again his budget comes up short, this time by tens of millions of dollars, in meeting HRS' requests for mental health services for both adults and children in the state.

Martinez has consistently ignored the needs of the mentally ill. He needs to change that. He can start by working closely with Hillsborough elected officials and Northside's directors to find a solution to the hospital's problem.