East Baton Rouge Parish could save $3 million in its first year and $55 million over 10 years in government expenses if it were to open a treatment center diverting mentally ill people from the parish prison system, according to a financial report commissioned by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
The report was prepared by economist M. Ray Perryman, founder of The Perryman Group in Waco, Texas, who calculated the direct and secondary economic benefits the proposed jail diversion program could have on the parish. His report is based on a mental health facility in San Antonio, Texas, considered an effective model nationwide. It’s also the model BRAF has used in its own research as it’s pushed for a mental health center in the capital city for the past several months.
Perryman said he used data provided by San Antonio’s facility and scaled it to fit Baton Rouge by comparing metrics like residential population, inmate population, incidence rates involving mentally ill people, and other factors to create a working operations budget.
The report does not, however, disclose what a proposed operations budget for a Baton Rouge facility would be. Perryman said in an interview Tuesday that the number is not public because it could reveal proprietary budget data from the San Antonio facility. However, he said he might be able to release the information at a later date.
The report also does not take into account the initial start-up costs to build or renovate a facility. He said similar facilities have had initial infrastructure costs of $15 million to $20 million.
Construction costs, often spread out over several years in the form of loans or bonds, would likely subtract from the initial savings calculated in the report.
For more than a year, BRAF has been advocating that the city-parish build and fund a center to address the mental health crisis in Baton Rouge, exacerbated by the 2013 closure of the parish’s only mental health emergency unit, in the Earl K. Long Medical Center.
The proposed facility would work as a safety net for mentally ill people, many of whom are being arrested on misdemeanor violations and being incarcerated, rather than receiving the treatment they need. The issue manifests itself into burdensome costs for the government in the form of prison overpopulation, prisoner medical care and costs to the judicial system.
Perryman’s report found savings, in the form of fewer incarcerations for persons with mental disorders, of some $3 million in the first year and $8.1 million per year once the program has reached maturity. He also calculates an indirect savings to the parish of $15.9 million in the first year and $289 million over 10 years. He said these indirect savings are derived from economic improvements like more jobs, less homelessness, and improved health of a community associated with the mental health facility.
Last year, a $335 million tax proposal was unsuccessfully pitched to the Metro Council for public safety infrastructure including the BRAF-backed mental health facility, which was being called the “restoration center.”
After the Metro Council rejected sending the tax increase proposal to voters, citing concerns that the tax plan had not been properly vetted, BRAF doubled down on its efforts to illustrate to the public the needs and plans for the facility.
Earlier this month, a committee of industry leaders assembled by BRAF outlined the services and staffing needs of a 24-hour mental health crisis center for people with mental health and addiction issues, now being called the Recovery and Empowerment Center. The center calls for a sobering unit, detox center, case managers and a medical stabilization center, among other services.
Perryman’s study did not take into consideration the committee’s needs assessment. Rather, the study was based solely on replicating the San Antonio model.
Committee leader Dr. Jan Kasofsky, executive director of the Capital Area Human Services District, cautioned that the needs of Baton Rouge’s mentally ill could differ from what was presented in the economic report.
“We have to always keep in mind that there are specific things that differ from Texas,” she said. “We have so many more uninsured people here. … They will have to be considered in the cost of service.”
Neither of the recent reports on the mental health needs in Baton Rouge have directly addressed how the proposed facility would be funded. Asked Tuesday by reporters if there could be another attempt to seek a tax to fund the services, the Rev. Raymond Jetson, who has worked closely with the committee, said it might not be necessary. However, he said that would ultimately be up to the Baton Rouge Metro Council.
Jetson and Kasofsky also said the committee has almost entirely ruled out the need to build a new facility from the ground up. They are instead eyeing locations that can be renovated.
Kasofsky said 3,400 people were treated at the Earl K. Long facility while it was open just shy of two years. She noted that none of those people went to jail. But right now, many people who otherwise would have been treated at that facility likely are instead being drawn into the maw of the judicial system.