Faced with little chance of recouping much of the $3.5 million lost in the Timpanogos Community Mental Health Center scandal, Utah County commissioners Thursday turned to local legislators for help.

"They're serious problems," Commissioner Malcolm Beck said of difficulty the Timp Authority Board would face if required to repay $1.7 million of Medicaid funding, deemed misused by the state Department of Health Division of Health Care Financing."We have very little chance of getting a lot of that money back," he said. "If we get back 20 cents on the dollar, we'll be lucky."

Beck told legislators the county is reviewing records to answer claims for back payment of the federal funds. "We'll challenge the things we think are inappropriate."

He said the county has until March 15 to respond to state Health Department audits that claim $1.7 million in Medicaid funds were misused by former Timp Mental Health administrators during 1986 and 1987.

Center Director Don Muller told legislators that fiscal strategies to address the problem must be considered during the current legislative session.

"We are ultimately going to be faced with some sort of payback," he said. "But we aren't sure what the answers will be when it comes down to a bottom line payback figure. It's going to be a major effort for us to respond."

Muller said the fallout from the abuse of public money at the center will affect operations for years to come.

"We've inherited debts. We've inherited worn-out facilities," Muller said, because large sums were used to line former administrators' pockets rather than provide services to the mentally ill. In addition, the dismissal of eight Timp officials last spring created several adjustment problems.

Responding to Department of Social Services criticism over why the center didn't respond sooner to audits, Muller said his first priority after being named center director last summer was to "gain control of the center."

Jerry Syme, Timp Mental Health finance director, said the center has introduced new accounting and purchasing procedures designed to prevent a repeat of past funding abuse.

"They made up their minds to break the law," he said of former Timp Mental Health employees. "They decided crime did pay."

Former administrators Glen Brown, Craig Stephens and Carl Smith have been charged with 117 counts of misuse of public money, felony theft and state income tax evasion.

Syme and attorney Dave Lambert of the law firm Howard, Lewis & Peterson criticized the auditing firm Timothy Smith & Associates, which audited Timp Mental Health in 1986 and 1987. "It's obvious they missed a lot of things," Syme said.

Lambert said the auditing firm should be held financially accountable because its services were "woefully inadequate."

Civil suits against several former Timp employees are pending, but it's unlikely much misspent money will be recovered. "Whatever they earned, they spent," Lambert said. Officials, however, are close to reaching an out-of-court settlement with Brown for about $150,000.

Provo School District Superintendent Jim Bergera also has agreed to return compensation he received under a consulting contract with Timp Mental Health. Bergera's compensation was $97,000 over a four-year period. He is deeding a home to the center, which then will be sold for reimbursement.

Other possible funding that could be used to pay back Medicaid funding include insurance sources, Lambert said. He said Timp Mental Health should receive a minimum of $100,000 from a public employees fidelity bond, but could receive much more if the bonding company begins cooperating. "They simply are not acting in good faith."

Lambert said officials aren't necessarily financially responsible for the alleged criminal conduct that created the scandal, but Beck said county commissioners bear ultimate responsibility. Nevertheless, he said, "Utah County cannot afford to pay back $1.7 million."