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Gadsden getting millions: Governor announces nearly $3.5 million in state grant funds for local bridge repairs, mental health services

A little more than a week after Gadsden County Public Works officials announced the closure of the Little River Bridge as it undergoes badly needed repairs, and almost six months since the Hutchinson Ferry Road bridge suddenly collapsed in the predawn darkness, injuring two motorists and shining a spotlight on the poor condition of bridges countywide, Governor Ron DeSantis’ announcement late last week that the state would chip in more than $2 million toward Gadsden County bridge overhauls came as welcome news, indeed. 

At a press conference this past Thursday at the Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office, DeSantis told a standing-room-only crowd of local government leaders, law enforcement, business owners and other citizens that more than $2.2 million from the state’s Hurricane Michael State Recovery Grant Program has been earmarked for Gadsden County: specifically, $1,595,595 to reconstruct the  Hutchinson Ferry Road Bridge that collapsed in September 2019, and $676,750 to repair the Little River Bridge, which closed for repairs eight days prior to the press conference.

The first-year Florida governor was joined Thursday by First Lady Casey DeSantis, who announced an additional $1.2 million in funding from the Department of Children and Families to help bolster Gadsden County mental health and substance abuse treatment initiatives. 

Regarding the bridge repair funds, Governor DeSantis said, “Today’s announcement builds on our progress over the past year to make sure Northwest Florida fully recovers. These two bridges are an essential part of everyday life for the residents of Gadsden County and I look forward to continuing to offer our full support to help this area recover stronger than before.”

Echoing the governor in his own remarks Thursday, Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) Director Jared Moskowitz said, “Projects like the ones we awarded today in Gadsden County are exactly why the Hurricane Michael State Recovery Grant was created. Two important bridges in this area needed repair and today we were able to focus available dollars to fix them, without a specific appropriation. I look forward to the Legislature extending this program in 2020.”

The Hurricane Michael State Recovery Grant Program supports Northwest Florida’s recovery by addressing issues like revenue loss and operating deficits, which are not covered by available federal funding, according to the Division of Emergency Management, which administers the state program. 

“These grants can also be used for infrastructure repair or replacement, beach renourishment, recreational facilities and debris removal,” a division news release adds.

In October, Governor DeSantis requested an additional $25 million from the Florida Legislature to fund the Hurricane Michael State Recovery Grant Program for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. For more information, click here.

Gadsden County mental health initiatives get million-dollar-boost

Following her husband’s remarks Thursday morning, First Lady Casey DeSantis told the assembled crowd that Gadsden County has been awarded a $1.2 million three-year grant from the Florida Department of Children and Families to fund a Criminal Justice Diversion Project that promises to “provide a comprehensive array of services and support for citizens with untreated mental health and substance abuse challenges that too often can trap them in the criminal justice system.”

Though mental health and substance abuse concerns may lack the public drama and spectacle of a bridge collapse, for local law enforcement, public health workers and other Gadsden County residents who daily come face-to-face with citizens struggling with addiction, isolation, mental health disorders and other challenges that often go unnoticed by the public at large, there’s no question that greater funding and resources for mental healthcare is every bit as urgent a need for local communities as bridge repair, according to Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young.

“Mental health and substance abuse has been one of those major issues in our community,” Young told those gathered for the press conference last Thursday. “They have robbed so many people – really good people. They end up in our jails, and of course, our jails become overcrowded.”

The grant-funded project will include partnerships with Florida A&M University’s Department of Social Work, as well as other area resources

“I’m pleased to be working on this collaborative project that aims to reduce recidivism for those who struggle with mental illness and substance abuse disorders,” First Lady DeSantis said Thursday. “With this new diversion program, Gadsden County joins a growing trend of recognizing that these individuals need real care and support to get back on their feet, find meaningful work, support their families and ultimately rejoin their communities.

In addition to the press conference, Sheriff Young and other local leaders held a roundtable discussion with the DeSantises and their entourage to further discuss some of the issues covered during the press conference.

By Brian Dekle