Georgia lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Monday to restart the 2020 legislative session, and Bill Whitney is paying close attention.
Whitney, the executive director of The Connection, is watching to see whether the $4 million in the state budget to support addiction recovery support centers (ARCs) across Georgia, like The Connection, will survive severe spending reductions ordered by Gov. Brian Kemp in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
With agencies expected to trim 11% from their budgets, the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), which administers the $4 million to ARCs, has already targeted that funding to save costs.
That would mean $250,000 gone for all of Georgia’s ARCs, most of which are banking on the funds to help them become financially self-sustainable.
“It’s dangerous,” Whitney said. “There are literally hundreds of families in our community in Forsyth County who depend on us to keep them together.”
The funding was created by the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA): Building Communities of Recovery program, a bill passed in 2016 in response to the opioid crisis that provided funding for community-based addiction treatment centers.
Catherine Rosborough founded The Connection two years later to provide suffering addicts in Forsyth County with services and support to gain long-term recovery. The county let the non-profit organization use a small house on Veterans Memorial Boulevard to hold meetings and “pro-sober” social activities. The organization built strong partnerships with community stakeholders, including the local accountability court system. CARA gave The Connection the funding it needed to get off the ground.
Whitney said the organization has “grown like a weed” ever since, even when the novel coronavirus pandemic forced The Connection to temporarily close its facility. It transitioned to virtual meetings and reached an even wider audience. Last year, The connection made over 4,000 “peer support service episodes,” Whitney said. Meanwhile, other funding sources, like corporate sponsorships and grants, have grown over the past two years to the point where The Connection is nearly self-sustainable.
But business closures forced by the coronavirus pandemic smashed state revenue projections. Kemp called for agencies to slash 14% of their budgets at one point, then dropped that number to 11% after more optimistic revenue projections came back for April.
Regardless, the DBHDD proposed eliminating the $4 million to ARCs to meet Kemp’s demands. Whitney said cutting the budget “is a tough job for the legislature,” but getting rid of the CARA funding would be a short-sighted decision that could cost the state down the road.
“ARCs keep people in jobs, paying taxes, going home, being parents, taking care of their children,” Whitney said. “We keep people out of jail, out of the criminal justice system in general. We keep them on a program of recovery that keeps them out of the ERs with overdoses and alcohol poisoning problems."
Whitney added, “If you don’t pay this bill now, it’s going to explode exponentially in downstream costs that are going to end up being born by the state, and your $4 million investment is going to turn into a tens of millions of dollars problem, and we’re going to be right back where we started two years ago.”
Whitney said the ARC network has been lobbying lawmakers hard over the past few weeks. They’ve emailed and called legislators. They started an online petition that has over 22,000 signatures.
Now, they’re waiting to see how the remaining legislative session unfolds.
“Human lives are at stake,” Whitney said. “This is something that requires serious consideration.”