Efforts to build a Baker Act facility in Citrus County bore some fruit last week when Florida awarded LifeStream Behavioral Center a $2 million grant to help in its construction.
“It’s a great kick start,” said LifeStream CEO Jon Cherry of the grant and getting the proposed 30,000 square feet facility built.
While the grant puts LifeStream, and by extension Citrus County, closer to having its own facility to evaluate area residents suffering mental health crises, there is still a long way to go and significant political hurdles to overcome.
That’s because the proposed 60-bed facility is getting more expensive as time goes on and county entities with deep enough financial pockets to help with the project are digging in their heels, demanding guarantees in return.
Currently, Baker Act clients are transported by sheriff’s deputies to LifeStream’s Leesburg facility in Lake County.
This is where Cherry is now and where he needs to be to get the facility built.
Cherry estimates that with recent inflation, a new Baker Act facility would cost about $12 million.
What Cherry has thus far is a $2 million commitment from Hernando County, which also wants a closer facility.
For its part, LifeStream would kick in $2 million. It’s also paid $1.2 million, in addition to about $250,000, in renovation costs, for two buildings on 10 acres on County Road 491 South, just north of the College of Central Florida Citrus County campus. The site is where LifeStream wants to build the Baker Act facility.
With the state’s newest grant, that put LifeStream at $6 million and still needing another $6 million.
To shore up the difference, Cherry told the Chronicle he is talking with Sumter County officials in hopes of donating to the project and having a closer facility for their county residents. LifeStream is already in the process of working with an architect to start designing the facility.
LifeStream has the Citrus County contract to provide mental health services here and is looking to build a Baker Act facility instead of transporting residents in crisis to its Leesburg Baker Act facility. It’s now that contract for three years. Much behind getting the contract was assurances that LifeStream would make the Baker Act facility a priority.
LifeStream is paid about $4 million from the state for its services here. in the past 12 months, 1,176 Citrus County residents were taken to the LifeStream Baker Act facility in Leesburg.
But when it comes to deep enough pockets to build a new facility, there aren’t many.
In Citrus County, there is the Citrus County Commission and the Citrus County Hospital Board, which owns HCA Florida Citrus Hospital in Inverness on behalf of the public and leases it to HCA. It takes lease money and with it helps fund local health care charities and health care endeavors.
Cherry is asking at least $2 million from the hospital board and also help from the county commission.
There’s no dispute from either county entity that the facility is needed. It comes down to who will own it if LifeStream loses its Citrus County contract.
Cherry said LifeStream would lease it to which ever mental health provider has the new contract, but county and hospital board officials want the facility to revert to county residents.
That’s resulted in an impasse for all involved.
But with the new state Grant, Cherry told the Chronicle he thinks he’s making progress in Citrus County to get funding help.
“I am very hopeful at this point,” he said. “We’re having very good discussions.”
Citrus County Hospital Board trustee Rick Harper said that despite the new state grant, little has changed for him in giving LifeStream money.
Unless there’s a way to protect the taxpayers’ investment in the project, he won’t support giving lifeStream the money it wants.
“What’s best for the taxpayers?” Harper said he asks himself.
LifeStream ending up owning the facility and the taxpayer out its contribution is not best for the taxpayers, he said, adding that the latest state grant doesn’t change that.
Meanwhile, Cherry told the Chronicle the grant must be spent in the next 36 months or the money goes back to state coffers. He said borrowing the money to build the facility and having a mortgage could be an option, but likely an undesirable one.
But Cherry said the state money will be helpful in getting all the interested parties encouraged again to find a compromise.
“The sooner we reach a conclusion, the sooner we can start construction,” he said.
Nyomie Ortiz can just remember what she felt the evening of New Year’s Day, 2022, when a vehicle struck her on a bicycle ride home in Sugarmill Woods.
“I did feel a lot of pain when I got hit – so much,” the 12-year-old said. “I felt like I broke something, and I did; it really hurt, it hurt so bad.”
Nyomie’s initial prognosis was complete dependency, but her recovery efforts over nine months regained her independence, and she owes it to a loving household, supportive neighbors and a dedicated team from a local physical-rehabilitation facility.
“I feel like I can do this; I feel great, amazing,” Nyomie said after her Sept. 8 therapy session at Bravera Health Seven Rivers Outpatient Rehab in Crystal River. “I don’t know how to describe it but they’ve got my back, like you can do this girl because I do got this.”
Nyomie was cycling west in the eastbound lane of West Oak Park Boulevard, near Cactus Street, at around 6:15 p.m. Jan. 1, when she merged into the westbound lane and was rear ended by a car, which came to a stop, according to Florida Highway Patrol (FHP).
First responders airlifted Nyomie, who was thrown from her bike, to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa. Nyomie’s mom and dad, Norma and Angel Ortiz, heard the nearby sirens and helicopter behind their house, but didn’t know they were for their daughter.
“I had a feeling; she wasn’t home. ... We had called her to come home before sunset. ... It should have been like a 10-minute bicycle ride,” Norma Ortiz said. “My husband was already out looking for her.”
A Citrus County Sheriff’s Office deputy went to the Ortiz home roughly 45 minutes after the collision to ask Norma Ortiz if her family and its neighbors were searching for a little girl.
“And that’s how they told me,” Ortiz said. “They couldn’t tell me whether she was alive or dead; I was asking, and they just told me we needed to get to Tampa.”
Hospital staff told Nyomie’s parents their daughter, the oldest of three siblings, suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, along with other serious wounds.
Nyomie’s level of consciousness put her at a five on the Glasgow Coma Scale, which describes a three as unresponsive on its scale of up to 15.
“It wasn’t looking good,” Ortiz said.
Due to the severity of Nyomie’s injuries, citations and/or charges connected to the crash have been pending, according to FHP.
Nyomie was discharged from the hospital after a month and a week of treatment before she started therapy at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville for about a month and a half.
“They did great with her,” Ortiz said, “and they worked with what they could.”
Nyomie was still bedridden when she returned home, and was not yet aware of her surroundings.
“She was present sometimes but not all the time,” Ortiz said. “That happened when she came home, like three weeks in she was finally like, ‘oh, I’m here.’”
Along with feeding, dressing and bathing their daughter, Nyomie’s parents worked to keep her body moving, like buying and installing a harness to get Nyomie onto a treadmill.
“It was stressful but we’ve always remained positive with where she would be, even when they told us ... she was going to need a tracheotomy, she might not ever be standing, walking,” Ortiz said, “but we were like, ‘no, that’s not where she’s going to be’ ... and she’s fed off of it.”
“They mean a lot to me,” Nyomie said about her parents. “I don’t know what I would do if they passed away.”
Even though Nyomie and her family moved from California to their Sugarmill Woods home in November 2021, their neighborhood hosted community events for Nyomie after the crash.
“They’ve been amazing, and they didn’t even know us. ... We knew nobody; people just took us in,” Ortiz said. “Despite the accident, we don’t regret moving here; we’re so happy and blessed – we’re happy here.”
Insurance from the collision was running out for Nyomie, leaving physical therapists to reject her until the office manager of Bravera Health Seven Rivers Outpatient Rehab, Licensed Practical Nurse Victoria Lycans, got the call.
“Insurance was used very quickly so we were her last hope,” Lycans said, “and that right there made me want to fight because, to me, that’s not right.”
“Having people to actually fight for you is amazing,” Ortiz said. “We’re so grateful; we don’t know how to thank everybody.”
Nyomie arrived mid-March to her first day at Bravera Health Seven Rivers Outpatient Rehab in a wheelchair. She was only able to move her eyes back and forth.
After a week of daily and personal therapeutic exercises, which began with a hands-on approach before she became balanced enough for more demanding tasks, Nyomie and her mobility took turns for the best.
“Honestly, when we saw her, we thought we might be able to help her by keeping muscle mass and that’s it,” Lycans said while watching Nyomie jump for a balloon held by therapist above her head, “and now look at her – she is just amazing.”
“It means a lot to me; it’s worth it,” Nyomie said about her therapy. “I feel like I’ve gotten stronger with their help.”
Lycans and Nyomie’s therapists said Nyomie’s parents have to be recognized for keeping Nyomie active in between sessions while she’s at home to keep her strength up.
“She has phenomenal parents,” Lycans said. “There isn’t a time she’s come back without improving an amazing amount.”
“The vibe of love and happiness goes such a long way for healing,” added Susan Johnston, one of the six physical and occupational therapists who’s worked with Nyomie.
Nyomie is expected to return to Lecanto Middle School soon, and has been practicing to try out next year for the school’s soccer team to be its next top goal scorer. She’s also restarted her passions of writing, drawing and coloring.
“It’s just a matter of time, continuing therapy and all that, but they do see her making a great recovery ... to live her life as normal as possible,” Ortiz said, noting it will be hard to tell how Nyomie’s brain injury will impact her.
Before the crash, Nyomie and her family discussed their upcoming goals, as they do before each new year.
“Nyomie didn’t have one, so she decided her goal was to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up,” Ortiz said. “The accident, she says, has done it for her – she wants to be a physical therapist and take care of kids like her.”
“Help people who have gone through the same situation as me,” Nyomie said, adding, with a smile, she’d like to also help her parents and therapists when they need it.
“She’s what it’s all about, and makes us do what we do,” said Lycans, who hung a photo of Nyomie above her desk. “She’s just an amazing, determined little girl.”
Tobey Phillips has made the cut for potential county administrator.
Georgia-based Slavin Management Consultants, the headhunter hired by the county to vet applicants, recommended Phillips and six others to be interviewed by county commissioners.
James Drumm: township manager for Manheim Township in Pennsylvania (2021-22)
Stanley Hawthorne: town manager for Bloomfield, Connecticut (2021 to present)
Steve Howard: county administrator in Camden County, Georgia (August 2007 to present)
Rick Rudometkin: deputy city manager for the city of Huntsville, Texas (March 2021 to present).
Leonard Sossamon: interim city manager in Woodbury, New Jersey (2021 to present) He was also the county administrator in Hernando County from 2012-2019)
Larry Jones: County administrator for Walton County, Florida (August 2013 to April 2022)
After reviewing all 26 applicants, Slavin determined they are the most qualified to replace retiring Randy Oliver.
“We are confident that this group includes some excellent prospects for the BOCC’s consideration,” according to Robert Slavin, owner of the consulting company.
Phillips is a familiar face to Citrus Countians.
She was Citrus County Community Services Director from 2015-19 and the county’s public information officer from 2013-15. She was also executive assistant to the commissioners from 2012-13.
As head of community services, Phillips was responsible for several county divisions, including animal services, veterans services, senior programs, parks and recreation, and transit.
Her father was Craig Hunter. Citrus County’s first county administrator.
County Commissioners on Tuesday will consider these people to interview for the administrator position. Based on their decision, one-on-one interviews will occur on Sept. 26. With the candidate selection on Sept. 27.
County commissioners will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Citrus County Courthouse, 110 N. Apopka Ave., Inverness.
Commission meetings are now found on a new online access portal at www. citrusclerk.org/728/BOCC-Meeting-Portal.
Backers of the Homosassa River restoration project were hoping the second chance at funding would be the charm.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
After Gov. Ron DeSantis in June cut the asked-for $10 million project funding from the state budget, Florida Rep. Ralph Massullo tried again, this time paring the request down to $4 million in hopes it would be more palatable to state officials.
Still no go.
Massullo said he believes the project is worthwhile which is why he’s seeking another avenue of funding. The Springs and Watershed Restoration Program fund has $50 million and he’s contacted officials there hoping to get some money.
The Homosassa River restoration project is a nonprofit, volunteer organization working to restore the river and springs ecosystem by reestablishing the aquatic grass system and returning the river to its former quality.
The river is facing a 90 percent loss of native vegetation and invasion by Lyngbya algae. And so our organization’s goal is to remove the Lyngbya and replace that lost vegetation. Achieving this goal will also substantially increase both water clarity and quality.
Citrus County Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Josh Wooten called it “disappointing” the clean-up project didn’t make the cut a second time.
“It had all the ingredients that merit continued funding, proven concept, ongoing project, public private partnership, important to the environment and our water quality.
The chamber, he said, “will continue to push this project and others around the county when we meet with our legislative delegation and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. We need to get this done.”