By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposed 2021 General Fund budget includes money for a range of one-time projects focused on mental health, forensic sciences and youth services.
Ivey’s budget includes funds for a new forensic science lab in North Alabama and more beds at one of the state’s three mental health hospitals in Tuscaloosa.
Also, money for renovations at the Department of Youth Services’ residential facility near Montgomery is included in capital project line items totaling $95.3 million.
“These investments in such critical projects help address greater challenges in our state,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said.
“For example, making an investment to increase the number of beds in Taylor Hardin not only helps further the work being done there, but also lessens the burdens on other mental health facilities, as well as our prison system. These are one-time expenses, and with our budgets being in a strong position, now is the time to make these necessary improvements.”
Lawmakers will be assessing these requests as they finalize the 2021 budget in the coming months.
Taylor Hardin addition
The $60 million line-item for Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility would add 96 beds to the hospital, specifically for the criminally committed.
“The additional beds at Taylor Hardin are critical to meeting the requirements of the Hunter v. Beshear settlement agreement and they address a critical component of crisis care by making sure those who are in jail and need a mental health evaluation receive treatment services in the most appropriate setting,” Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) spokeswoman Malissa Valdes-Hubert said.
In 2016, ADMH was sued in federal court for allegedly violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.
The ACLU brought the lawsuit on behalf of multiple plaintiffs. When criminal defendants with severe mental illnesses are found incompetent to stand trial, judges order them committed to ADMH custody for therapy and treatment designed to restore them to competency. Taylor Hardin, the 140-bed maximum security hospital, is where that’s supposed to happen.
But, the ACLU alleged people were waiting an average of eight months in county jails for a spot at Taylor Hardin. County jails can’t provide the competency restoration treatment and provide “minimal mental health care,” the ACLU’s said.
New forensic lab in North Alabama
The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences is looking to replace its aging morgue and lab in Huntsville through an $11 million allocation.
“The ADFS Regional Forensic Laboratory and Morgue in Huntsville serves 22 counties across north Alabama, is ADFS’ oldest facility, while simultaneously being located in an area of north Alabama that is experiencing some of the state’s greatest growth,” ADFS Angelo Della Manna told Alabama Daily News.
Counties served by the facility include Lauderdale, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Limestone and Calhoun.
Della Manna said a site for the new proposed facility has not been finalized, but Madison County is likely. If lawmakers approve the funding, Della Manna said a site could be determined by summer.
At the current, crowded facility, only one autopsy can be performed at a time, Della Manna said, which creates significant back-ups.
In 2017, the Decatur Daily and TimesDaily reported that local law enforcement waited months for some autopsy results.
“The facility is incapable of keeping up with the expanding requests for services from law enforcement and the continued growth of the populace in north Alabama,” Della Manna.
Della Manna said the department has been addressing backlog issues and a new facility would help.
“I am so appreciative to Gov. Ivey for recognizing this need in north Alabama,” Della Manna said.
Improvements for DYS campus
For about a year, the Alabama Department of Youth Services has been evaluating the 40 and 50-year-old buildings, including the school, dorms and cafeteria, at its Mt. Meigs campus near Montgomery to determine what can be renovated and what must be replaced.
The $6 million line-item in Ivey’s budget, along with $7 million already in a capital fund, will also allow the department to stop using modular units on the campus and put everything “in brick and mortar buildings,” David Rogers, deputy director of administration, said.
“We are going to have to build a new dormitory for our intensive treatment center,” Rogers said.
The campus currently has room for 160 youths, and the improvements will not add capacity, Rogers said.
“We just need to put them in some better facilities,” he said.
Ivey sent her proposed $2.5 billion General Fund and $7.5 billion Education Trust Fund budgets to lawmakers last week.
The Senate will be the first chamber to work on the General Fund budget.
“I’m going to make every effort to help the governor with what we need, in particular with mental health,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said. He is the Senate General Fund budget chairman. But, Albritton said it’s too early to commit to those line items.
“The real issue is who else is out there with their hands out,” Albritton said about other departments and needs in the budget.
Ivey also allocated some funds to the National Guard, Department of Finance, Historical Commission and Governor’s Mansion Authority.