Members of the Metro Council are still on the hunt for ways to finance a new prison and mental health facility, despite voting against a measure last month that would have allowed East Baton Rouge Parish voters to decide whether to fund a $335 million infrastructure plan with a tax increase.
The search for tax-free financing has been fruitless so far, and on Wednesday, council members received a financial report from the Mayor’s Office that crossed at least one more alternative off the list.
Previously, Councilman John Delgado proposed that the city-parish save money by reducing the number of overflow prisoners sent out of the parish. Because the parish prison is undersized, hundreds of inmates are housed in other prisons across the state, costing the parish millions of dollars every year.
Delgado previously suggested that if the parish was able to reduce this cost, then the savings could pay for some of the proposed public safety projects without increasing taxes.
Last month, he and Councilman Ryan Heck directed Mayor President Kip Holden’s staff to provide a report with “tax-neutral alternatives” to fund a mental health center. Delgado specifically requested a breakdown of how much the city-parish would save if it didn’t have to pay for out-of-parish prisoners.
However, in every scenario explored by the report, the savings from reducing the number of out-of-parish prisoners is barely enough to cover the cost of the debt required to build a new prison and its operating costs.
The one-page report also doesn’t take into account where those previously out-of-parish prisoners would go. It does not assume they would be housed in East Baton Rouge Parish, which would offset any of the implied savings.
Some council members have speculated that the proposed mental health facility would substantially reduce the number of people in prison, freeing beds and reducing the number of out-of-parish prisoners. The mental health facility, which was dubbed in the failed tax plan as the Restoration Center, was to be a place for mentally ill people who fall through the cracks and end up in parish prison accused of misdemeanor crimes. Instead, those people would be directed to treatment and services. The proposed facility would have cost $16.6 million to build and would have been funded with a 0.5 mill property tax.
An average of 325 prisoners were on psychiatric medication per day in 2014, according to the report, giving an idea of how many prisoners could have been redirected to a mental health facility. However, of those prisoners, many of them are accused of committing felonies. Only mentally ill patients accused of committing misdemeanors would be eligible for the services of the Restoration Center.
Delgado said he is still looking for more funding sources, adding that he and Heck will soon take a trip with other leaders to see the much-lauded mental health facility in San Antonio, which was the model used to inspire the Restoration Center.
“If they were able to do it without raising taxes, we should be able to do the same,” Delgado said, of the Texas facility’s operational costs. The San Antonio facility was constructed with a private donation.
Heck said he wants the Mayor’s Office to provide a list of the least painful government expenses or services that can be cut in order to pay for the Restoration Center.
Council members on Wednesday also continued to take issue with the low daily cost of housing prisoners out of the parish, compared the cost of paying for them in the parish prison.
The city-parish pays $24.93 per day, per prisoner to house inmates outside of the parish. The estimates for the cost of a daily prisoner in East Baton Rouge Parish have ranged from $35 to $70 per day.
Some council members have suggested this supports a push for privatization, or sending all prisoners out of the parish.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for the mayor, said the out-of-parish jails can charge low costs because they have the luxury of rejecting sick inmates so they have lower medical costs.
Marsha Hanlon, finance director, said an inmate with HIV/AIDS costs about $700 a day.
Daniel also noted that the cost of paying for the prison is also built into East Baton Rouge Parish’s daily costs, whereas many of the jails across the state where Baton Rouge inmates are being sent to were built by the state.
“They don’t have that cost,” Daniel said. “It’s like if someone gave you a house for free. But here we have to pay for a mortgage.”
Several council members said they’d like to see law enforcement officials address reducing the criminal population before building a new larger prison.
“The more beds you build, the more beds you fill,” said Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle. “I don’t want the larger capacity. I’d rather you deal with the symptoms of the problem.”
But even if the capacity issue was addressed, Daniel said, the prison still needs to be replaced.
“The prison has outlived its useful life,” he said.