The impact of this year’s state budget is still being absorbed. In some communities there’s concern that government downsizing will hurt the overall quality of life.
Desoto County is such an example. The state’s juvenile justice facility, just outside the small city of Arcadia, is closing because of state budget cuts and it means the loss of more than 400 jobs.
Wheelers Café in downtown Arcadia is a popular local meeting place. Retired county employee Don Waters stops by once a week for the fried pork chop special. He’s concerned closing the DJJ -- as it’s known locally -- will impact the entire community.
“I have a friend that the housing market fell through so he’s not working. His wife works at the DJJ their daughter works at DJJ and when they lose their jobs there’s no income for that family,” he said. “It’s gonna hurt a lot of the businesses.”
About 35,000 people live in DeSoto County. Cattle and citrus are the dominant industries. There’s a large retiree population and a non-agricultural workforce of around 5,500, so a loss of 400 jobs is a significant hit. Barbara Galloway who’s a social services counselor at the DJJ likens the closing to an economic tornado.
“We had one lady who spoke at the county commission meeting who does taxes and she said well over half her clients are at djj so she doesn’t expect to stay open,” she said. “We all go out together to eat lunch – that’s not going to happen anymore.”
Employees facing lay-offs say the closure is eroding the community’s already small middle class.
Florida lawmakers balanced the state budget this year by cutting $3.8 billion dollars in spending. The budget resulted in $67 million out of the Department of Juvenile Justice’s budget, accounting for an 11 percent cut.
Lawmakers decided to trim the department by putting more money into prevention and intervention programs and closing several costly juvenile detention centers. Most will close by June 30. But, the DeSoto Dual Diagnosed Correctional Facility, surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire – serving some of the state’s most disturbed youthful offenders -- will close later.
The youth will be transferred to other facilities. But options for employees are limited. State lawmaker Paige Kreegel represents DeSoto County in the Florida House. As a Republican – he broke ranks with the majority – and urged colleagues and Florida Gov. Rick Scott to keep the facility open. Kreegel said given an unemployment rate of 11 percent in Desoto County putting that many people out of work doesn’t make sense.
“Right now they’re all covered by blue cross insurance,” he said. “When that stops now they’re a charity case, not only on state unemployment rolls but on Medicaid and you really haven’t saved a lot of money.”
Most of DeSoto County is represented in the state senate by one of the legislature’s most influential lawmaker s, Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Republican JD Alexander. He did not return phone calls requesting an interview.
Scenario’s like the one in Arcadia have contributed to extremely low approval ratings for Republican Gov. Rick Scott who set the legislative agenda of balancing the budget by cutting state jobs and programs. But the 2012 election looms. Barbara Galloway, soon be laid off from the facility said in 2010 she voted a straight Republican ticket. Next time – she thinks probably not.
“Obviously something has to change in Tallahassee. This isn’t working. The way things are has to change,” Galloway said. “The state is in crisis, let alone DeSoto County.”