Officials look to restart mental health discussions after tax proposal defeat _lowres

Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG -- U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, left, watches, Dr. Jan Kasofsky, executive director CAHSD, speaks. “Roots of Violent Crime in our Community: Current Approaches and Local Solutions for Public Safety and Mental Health Services.” Panelists discussed issues of law enforcement, mental health services, violence prevention and access to needed services through community involvement. The forum did not address issues of gun control. State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, Dr. Jan Kasofsky and other distinguished panelists discuss. Photo shot on Wednesday Feb. 20, 2013, in Baton Rouge, La..

The recent death of a tax proposal that would have funded several public safety construction projects, including one for a mental health center in the Baton Rouge area, left many advocates for the mentally ill disappointed.

But some didn’t stay blue for long, instead trying to forge ahead with making the so-called “restoration center” a reality without the tax revenue to fund the project.

They are piggybacking on the plaudits from Metro Council members and city-parish officials about the idea of a treatment facility where police could take people dealing with mental health crises instead of dropping them at the jail or an emergency room. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation is guiding the effort to create a mental health center in the capital city.

“We’re still moving forward,” said Patricia Calfee, a BRAF project manager.

The local nonprofit organization recently asked Jan Kasofsky, executive director of the Capital Area Human Services District, to lead a series of upcoming meetings to help determine East Baton Rouge Parish’s mental health needs.

A group of about a dozen local law enforcement leaders, doctors and psychiatrists will participate in the meetings, the first of which is scheduled for Tuesday, where the discussion will center around potential designs, funding options, functions and locations for a mental health center and the services provided by such a place, Kasofsky said, noting that all the components may not be located in the same building.

Because estimates indicate about half of the people who would receive services would be unable to pay, Kasofsky said, funding is one of the main challenges that will be discussed during the meetings.

While Metro Council members last month applauded the concept of the restoration center, they balked at the full $335 million tax proposal, which would have paid to build not only that $16 million facility but a new jail and other criminal justice infrastructure. As part of the plan, Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration also floated a tax to pay for operating the mental health center, underscoring the financial challenges of moving forward without new revenue sources.

In spite of the many hurdles remaining before a mental health center could become a reality in East Baton Rouge Parish, Kasofsky said she was “very happy” about the upcoming discussions. She has written and spoken in the past about the dire need for a mental health center since the Mental Health Emergency Room Extension at the former Earl K. Long Medical Center closed about two years ago, which many agree has led to a significant rise in people with mental illness being jailed at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

William Daniel, Holden’s chief administrative officer, said officials are still concerned about how the Parish Prison is essentially being used as a “safety net” for people with mental health issues. City-parish officials are involved in discussions about how to best approach the challenges facing the local mental health community, Daniel said.

Calfee, the BRAF project manager, said many details of the plans for the mental health center, including potential locations, remain up in the air.

However, many of the plans share commonalities with a mental health treatment system in San Antonio, where officials have traveled to see the success of programs there.

As part of a public outreach campaign, BRAF brought one of the creators of San Antonio’s model, Leon Evans, to speak to local leaders at a luncheon in early January.

Later this month, Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter turned mental health advocate and author, will be the guest speaker at BRAF’s next scheduled event.

It will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in downtown Baton Rouge. The event is free and open to the public.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.