They didn't hear the magic words that would save the dying program, but state legislators representing the area and the program's original director convinced state officials this week to allow time for a private entity to propose the same or similar service for Georgia's troubled teens.
Frank Berry, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, agreed to delay the formal action that would close the Warm Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Program, state Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, said Wednesday.
"It will not come up at (Monday's) meeting," Buckner said.
Money for OTP, the only state-funded residential program for wayward youth, still will be cut at the end of the month -- and the program's 18 children still will be sent elsewhere -- but the paperwork reprieve still is significant.
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"It will not be a quick and easy process to get approval," Buckner said, "but it's worth it because it's for the kids."
DBHDD's board meets every other month -- it's next scheduled meeting after Monday is Oct. 21 -- so a private entity should have two months to develop a proposal.
OTP has helped hundreds of teens get back on track in its 30-year history. Its 600 acres were carved out of F.D. Roosevelt State Park off Ga. Highway 190 in Meriwether County, about 40 miles north of Columbus. If the property isn't used for a purpose at least similar to OTP, then ownership would revert to the Department of Natural Resources. And that would make it harder to revive the program, said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus.
"One of my concerns is that we've made this tremendous investment with $150,000 to $200,000 of bonded indebtedness (for the facility) on that property," McKoon said. "The idea of boarding up the facility and not using it seems like a waste of resources."
The DBHDD officials weren't reached for comment Wednesday.
"We are right now trying to determine what would be involved to put together some kind of program that would be helpful to area youth to utilize the facility but have it run by a non-governmental not-for-profit," Buckner said.
The next steps are to learn whether and how a private entity could lease the land to continue the same or a similar program on the site, Buckner said.
Mike Angstadt, OTP's first director (1983-95), attended the meeting this week at DBHDD with Buckner and McKoon. Now, he is executive director of Twin Cedars Youth and Family Services, a private not-for-profit organization headquartered in LaGrange, Ga., and with offices in Columbus, Macon, Ga., and Opelika, Ala. Angstadt confirmed Twin Cedars is interested in the possibility of succeeding OTP.
Angstadt said Twin Cedars board chairman Frank "Chunk" Newman gave him permission to present such a proposal at the board's executive committee meeting Aug. 27.
"A private not-for-profit can be more nimble than a state agency that gets a line item in a budget," Angstadt said. "Perhaps there are some ways to use the property, pay off these bonds and help families in a way that couldn't be done by state government."
Angstadt noted his proposal could include a collaboration among multiple entities for an economy of scale.
"Mike Angstadt has a lot of great ideas for the property," McKoon said.
McKoon also said he has had "a number of calls from constituents telling me there are other third parties interested, but I have not heard from them."
DBHDD told OTP's 33 full-time and 10 part-time employees July 31 that it would close the program Aug. 31. DBHDD communications director Matt Carrothers said in an email Tuesday the residential program doesn't fit the department's revised mission to shift treatment from centralized institutions to facilities closer to home. OTP finished fiscal year 2013 with a deficit of $687,157 -- $2,335,699 in expenditures, $1,688,543 in revenue -- and has an enrollment at less than half its capacity -- 18 youth as of July 31 with a capacity for 44, he said.
OTP supporters say the program isn't a line item in the state budget anymore and has relied on $300,000 from DBHDD and $164 per day for each child referred by the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Division of Family and Children Services. The DJJ accounts for the majority of those referrals but stopped them in June, effectively causing the program to run a deficit, OTP supporters say. A year ago, the enrollment was 33, and there was a waiting list as recently as this winter, an OTP employee said on condition of anonymity. As recently as fiscal year 2011, the employee said, the program was self-supporting and returned $50,000 to the state, but DBHDD stopped allowing private-pay OTP clients.