State money helps county start a mental health pretrial program, which aims to help people with mental health and/or substance abuse issues

CRESTVIEW — Thanks in part to state funding, Okaloosa County recently made large strides in starting a mental health pretrial program, which aims to stabilize people who are going through mental health and/or substance abuse-related crises that may otherwise result in low-level criminal charges.

Such men and women generally are not violent criminals and are in desperate need of treatment more than jail time, according to county officials.

County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, who is a former longtime licensed clinical social worker, has said that it’s unacceptable that Florida’s largest mental health facilities are jails and prisons.

To help fund the mental health pretrial program, the County Commission earlier this month approved accepting a $250,000 legislative appropriation that was processed by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

The program will be administered by Tallahassee-based Big Bend Community Based Care Inc, while Bridgeway Center in Fort Walton Beach will provide all sheltering services, outpatient care including behavior health treatment, and meals and shelter services for patients within the county. The shelter at Bridgeway is set to open Jan. 1.

The program is designed to provide shelter for up to 15 clients for up to 90 days so that 60 individuals can be served annually. That’s according to Greg Kisela, Okaloosa’s deputy county administrator who plans to retire in December.

Additional clients could be served on an outpatient basis. All clients are selected by judiciary criteria and processed and monitored by the county’s Pretrial Services Department, according to county information.

The budget for the first year of the program, with startup costs, totals $620,000.

County officials plan to use the $250,000 from the state to fund operations through June 30, 2020, and use $370,000 in county funding for the rest of the year.

The program is anticipated to cost almost $557,000 annually. For the 2020 legislative session that begins Jan. 14, the county has made an appropriation request for $450,000 with a match of $150,000.