After a trip to San Antonio to see the mental health care facility that serves as the model for the proposed Restoration Center in Baton Rouge, two Metro Council members say they are more convinced than ever that such a center is needed here and that it can be accomplished without raising taxes.
Council members Ryan Heck and John Delgado visited the site this past weekend along with various mental health, addiction and law enforcement professionals on a trip organized by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, as part of an ongoing effort to address the mentally ill in the Capital City. The full council was invited, but Heck and Delgado were the only two to accept the invitation.
The Restoration Center was proposed as part of a $335 million public safety tax plan in January, along with a new prison, juvenile detention center and office space for the District Attorney and Public Defender. The plan required a combination of sales tax and property tax increases to fund both the construction and operations costs associated.
Law enforcement leaders say the Restoration Center could act as a safety net for mentally ill people who are being arrested for misdemeanor violations, but currently have no place else to go because the parish’s only mental health emergency unit closed with the Earl K. Long hospital in 2013.
The Metro Council rejected a request to put the tax proposal on the May ballot for voters, saying they didn’t have enough information about the proposal and questioning whether other funding alternatives had been explored.
Heck and Delgado both said they were impressed with the San Antonio facility and feel strongly that Baton Rouge could benefit from similarly structured services. But seeing that San Antonio’s facility also operates without dedicated taxes, the trip strengthened their resolve that funding could be pulled together from alternative sources.
“After speaking with the people on the trip, it’s widely recognized that the tax was very hastily thrown together, and you don’t just go get the money and then come up with the plan,” Heck said. “Come up with the plan and then go find the money.”
The San Antonio facility has an operating budget with more than 100 sources of revenue. The largest revenue source is an allocation from the state, and the second largest is from Medicaid reimbursement, said Patricia Calfee, BRAF project manager who has taken a lead on the Restoration Center project. The facility also has a local government allocation and receives grants and private donations.
“I’m satisfied to know they could build and operate something so significant without raising taxes,” Delgado said. “Raising taxes is a knee-jerk reaction.”
Jan Kasofsky, executive director of the Capital Area Human Services District, was among the health care leaders who attended the field trip. She said what makes San Antonio’s model successful is that various stakeholders have committed support and made mental health care a priority.
“What struck me is how the whole community took the problem on as their own,” she said.
After the tax proposal failed at the council, Kasofsky was appointed to lead a committee to design specific services and programs that would be included in Baton Rouge’s Restoration Center.
Kasofsky said many similar models across the country set up a foundation to oversee funding sources, which are typically made up of state funds, parish funds, and private donations.
Calfee said the construction and operating budgets that were proposed in the public safety tax came from a plan proposed by Grace and Hebert Architects, by scaling down the San Antonio facility to fit Baton Rouge’s population. The proposed operating budget was based on the funding in the now-closed mental health emergency unit.
Calfee said the budget could potentially change based on what comes out of the design committee, but she disagreed with the council members’ assessment that the proposal was hurried.
“I think we knew the very basics and how much that’s going to cost,” she said. “It’s not like the center would have been built overnight anyway. In that time all of the planning would take place.”
The San Antonio facility works in conjunction with a homeless shelter called “Haven for Hope,” located across the street that houses between 600 and 800 people per night. The mental health facility includes a sobering unit, inpatient and outpatient psychiatric treatment rooms, a detoxification center and a methadone clinic.
“If someone is walking naked down the street, and it’s not Mardi Gras, they clearly have mental problems, and putting them in jail doesn’t accomplish anything,” Delgado said. “If that happens here, the only option we have is for the police to drop them off at the ER and have them evaluated and then drop them off at parish prison to book them for the charges.”
He also said he was pleased to learn that San Antonio has seen a dramatic decline in its prison population since the services were opened and mentally ill and people with addictions have been diverted to other treatments.