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Roberts protects local youth program funds

By M.J. Ellington
DAILY Staff Writer

mjellington@decaturdaily.com (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — It sounded good on paper. With $1 million of General Fund money earmarked for regional juvenile offender programs, the Wiregrass area in South Alabama could have a pilot program of its own.

The only problem was that existing programs, like Morgan County System of Services, could lose money in the process. About seven other programs across the state faced the same threat.

In the waning hours of Senate activity Thursday, Morgan County District Court Judge David Breland called Sen. Tommy Ed Roberts, D-Hartselle, who spoke to the problem on the Senate floor.

"If Judge Breland had not called me, I don't know if I would have caught it," Roberts said Friday. He asked that the Senate not vote to give the money to Regional Alliance for Children, the organization set up to receive funds for the Wiregrass program.

The Finance and Taxation General Fund chairman, Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, agreed to remove the measure from consideration when the Legislature returns for the last day of the session May 16.

Breland said the Decatur-area program gets about $300,000 from the state Department of Youth Services. The department has money from Children's First Trust Fund investments set up to pay for regional alternatives to residential detention or probation. Breland said the Department of Children's Affairs administers the program that gives between $3 million and $4 million per year to the regional programs.

"We are not opposed to anyone starting a good new program for children," said Breland. "What we cannot do is let one of the best programs in the state, a proven program that works, lose funds as a result."

Bedford said a group of judges in the Wiregrass wanted the program. Bedford was not sure if the measure put Morgan County and other existing programs at financial risk, but he said the measure would come off the bill.

Both Bedford and Roberts said area programs set up to work with youthful offenders and their families can be a good alternative to Department of Youth Services centers far away from a child's home — if the money is there to pay for them.

"The one in Morgan County does some wonderful things with the kids and their families," said Roberts. "We wanted to make sure existing programs like that are not hurt."

Morgan County Chief Probation Officer Harry Williams said Morgan is the largest county in the state without a residential detention facility. In the local program, children who would otherwise be in residential treatment facilities like Mount Meigs in Montgomery stay at home. Treatment includes counseling for the child and the child's family, Williams said.

"It helps the kids, the parents, the community and the taxpayers," Breland added.

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