Byrd center faces cuts even before it opens

The governor's office says caring for patients is more important than Alzheimer's research.

Published September 12, 2007

TAMPA - The bad news could not have come at a worse time.

The Johnnie Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute faces the loss of $10-million of a $15-million state grant as it prepares to open the doors of its gleaming new headquarters in Tampa this week.

"They're potentially decimating us," says Melanie Meyer, a spokeswoman for the institute. "I don't know how you can look Floridians in the face and say this is prudent."

Cutting two-thirds of the center's annual state appropriation is on Gov. Charlie Crist's list of budget-cutting proposals submitted to legislators. The cut puts the 5-year-old institute at risk of having a new seven-story complex with deserted labs and empty corridors.

Most state programs have been told to get through the rest of this fiscal year with reductions of 4 percent or less to eliminate a current year budget shortfall of $1.1-billion.

Crist's administration says that direct care to patients is more important than finding a cure for Alzheimer's and that the institute can rely on federal grants and private donations instead.

"Direct services take priority over research," says Frank Penela, a spokesman for the Department of Elder Affairs. "We have to maintain the department's focus."

To the Byrd institute, that's too short-sighted.

"This is one of those penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions," Meyer says.

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It's the latest and potentially most serious financial setback for a project that was the vision of former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, whose father died of Alzheimer's in 1998.

Byrd was a lightning rod for controversy during his term as speaker. Some lawmakers once tried to change its name and said the institute was hobbled by cronyism in its early stages, but they agreed to the $15-million to cover most of its $18-million annual operating budget.

The institute still suffers credibility problems with key legislators who control its purse strings.

Sen. Durell Peaden, a Crestview Republican who oversees health-related spending, criticized the institute for hiring lobbyists and a public relations firm and for Byrd's move to pack the institute's original board of directors with political allies.

"I'm just a country doctor, but I damn sure wouldn't run it that way," Peaden says. "They're not going to have as much money as they had in the beginning, trust me."

Peaden says he agrees with Crist that direct care for Alzheimer's patients is a higher priority.

The institute's lobbying team includes Brian Ballard, a Crist ally and major fundraiser for the governor. But such connections don't guarantee success in tight budget times.

Ballard says the institute has been a legislative "whipping boy" because many lawmakers personally dislike Byrd, but it has survived previous efforts to end state support.

"For whatever reason, it's an easy target," Ballard says.

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The institute's headquarters has cost $33-million so far. Lilly Ho-Pehling, chief of clinical operations, estimates the final price tag may reach $38-million. But with state funding in doubt, it's not clear when the fifth and sixth floors will be completed.

The center is perched on the northern edge of the University of South Florida campus, encased in a soothing tint of sea mist green windows.

Palm trees, girded by wooden supports, dot the lush lawn of St. Augustine sod, and Italian porcelain tile the color of cappuccino covers the lobby floor of the four-story atrium. The tile is practical because it's commercial grade - able to withstand heavy foot traffic and easy to clean, Meyer said.

A sculpture of perforated aluminum strips dangles from the ceiling. The suspended collage resembles lobes of the brain and is coated in blue, yellow and red powder. The artwork is meant to represent the hope that science can decipher the mysteries of the brain. It cost $100,000, and satisfies a state law requiring that 1 percent of a building's cost be spent on art in public places.

In these tight times, institute officials say they have been careful not to splurge on luxuries.

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The Department of Elder Affairs was under orders to find ways to trim its budget by up to 10 percent or about $13-million. Of that total, $10-million in savings would come from a cut to the Byrd institute.

Meyer says it's unfair for the institute to absorb such a big financial hit when the $15-million is what bureaucrats call a pass-through of money moving from the Legislature, nominally through an agency, to its intended recipient.

But Tonya Kidd, the elder affairs agency's budget director, said Crist's office instructed agencies to include pass-throughs in proposing cuts.

Meyer says the institute was prepared to take a 10 percent reduction, or $1.5-million - not $10-million.

"Would you build a bridge to St. Petersburg and not finish it before you got there?" she asks.

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The center relies almost exclusively on the state for operating revenue, according to its balance sheet for the fiscal year ending June 30.

The major expenses for the year include $5.6-million for salaries and related expenses, $2.9-million for building operations, maintenance and equipment, and $2.2-million for grants. This year the center spent about $7-million of its $18-million annual budget on research.

Hundreds of invitations have been extended to the public grand opening, scheduled for 11 a.m to 3 p.m. Saturday at the center, 4001 E Fletcher Ave., which follows a private reception for community leaders Friday.

The timing, Meyer says, was purely coincidental.

"It sends a potentially damaging message to scientists - that we're trying to build a world-class institute," Meyer said, "but we're doing it on a bake-sale budget."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.