Budget cuts may push Byrd to USF

State budget cuts are threatening the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute, so the University has proposed one way to fix the problem: incorporating the independent center into the University.

Michael Hoad, a spokesman for USF Health, said the issue arose when state legislators announced that the budget of the Department of Elder Affairs – the department through which the institute is funded – would be cut. The Department of Elder Affairs has said that if forced to make serious cuts, they would take money from the institute because it does not provide direct services to elders, Hoad said. In response, the Board of Governors is proposing that the institute be removed from the Elder Affairs budget.

The institute – located on Fletcher Avenue – is one of the state’s premier Alzheimer’s research centers. The institute’s creation was spearheaded by Johnnie B. Byrd Jr., a former Speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives, whose father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. It was founded as an independent, not-for-profit statewide institute headquartered on the USF campus, devoted to understanding, preventing, and curing Alzheimer’s disease.

Byrd Institute Chief of External Affairs Melanie Mayer called the Department of Elder Affairs’ decision disingenuous. In August, Mayer said, Gov. Charlie Crist asked all agencies – including the Department of Elder Affairs – to cut between 4 and 12 percent from their budgets.

The Department of Elder Affairs, Mayer said, responded by taking a substantial part of their cuts from money that goes to the Byrd Institute. Since the funds that the Institute receives from Elder Affairs is a state appropriation of general revenue dollars, cuts to the Institute do not trim Elder Affairs’ budget, she said.

“We thought it was a little bit disingenuous because that money only flows from them,” Mayer said. “They weren’t reducing any of their cuts.”

Mayer said that Florida’s chief financial officer, Alex Sink, simply writes a check and hands it over to the Department of Elder Affairs, who in return hands the check to the institute for the same amount of money.

“They don’t administer our programs or do any services for us. It seems to me that if you are asked to cut your budget, you should cut the budget of things that you actually spend,” she said.

Mayer said the Department of Elder Affairs’ reasoning for slashing the institute’s money was insulting.

“Just to kind of rub salt in it all, the secretary said that his reasoning was that we only do research and research isn’t as valuable as direct service to people,” she said.

Mayer cited advances in technology as one reason why funding toward research shouldn’t be neglected.

“Well, you know in the 1930s, we could have just kept building more iron lungs, but we decided to put money into the research that gave us the vaccine to polio,” Mayer said.

President Judy Genshaft and vice president of Health Sciences Stephen Klasko recently said that if the institute was moved over to the SUS system budget, USF would fight for it to be a part of the University.

Board of Governors Chancellor Mark Rosenberg wrote a letter to Florida Sens. Arthenia Joyner and Durell Peaden Jr. on Feb. 4 regarding Byrd becoming part of USF.

Members of the Florida Board of Governors have been touring the facility and meeting with key leaders at the institute as well as leadership at USF and have recommended that the Board of Governors consider its recommendation at the March 27 meeting, according to the letter. The recommendation is to “formally integrate the Johnny B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute with the University of South Florida, USF Health.”

The letter also states that the University would assume certain responsibilities, as USF would “change the current governance structure to allow the University of South Florida Board of Trustees to determine appropriate administration and governance structure to include the current statewide mission of the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute.”

Hoad said the move would require changes in the budgetary location of the institute.

“The truth is that it doesn’t fit Elder Affairs very well,” Hoad said. “Legislators were saying that they should put it where it should have been, with higher education.”

Mayer said that the institute is not unwilling to become a part of USF, but that both parties would need to understand the parameters, adding that the Byrd and the University are already interconnected.

“I sometimes think that we’re spending time fixing a problem that maybe isn’t a problem,” she said. “We’re already at USF. There are so many resources on campus that we should naturally have a give and take with. For us, the question is just describing what that relationship should look like.”

It is important to the institute that it maintains an independent Board of Directors and continues to have only one focus: curing Alzheimer’s, Mayer said. The Byrd Institute’s mission is to prevent and cure Alzheimer’s Disease.

According to alz.org, Alzheimer’s disease is defined as a “progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys a person’s memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily activities.” An estimated 5 million Americans were affected by the disease in 2007.

“To our board, the idea of an institute dedicated to one issue, Alzheimer’s, is really important,” Mayer said. “Our board has always felt like they want the institute to be led by an appointed board. If we understood how the board would interact with the proposal, then we could comment on it.”

Huntington Potter, chief executive officer and scientific director of the Byrd Institute, said he hoped USF and the Byrd Institute would benefit from each other just as the Moffitt Cancer Center and USF have done.

If the institute is taken out of Elder Affairs and moved over to the higher education budget, it is plausible that USF might not be alone in its fight to attain the institute. Mayer said that those within the institute would prefer to remain with USF, but that it would present certain difficulties.

The institute is funding scientists at the University of Florida and at Florida Atlantic University, but Mayer fears that would have to stop if the institute became a part of USF.

“Their duty is to put their University first,” she said.

“It’s a concern that people have. One of the reasons that we’ve been successful is because other schools don’t feel like they aren’t getting something that other schools are getting,” Mayer said.