East Baton Rouge voters will have the opportunity on Dec. 8 to decide on two proposed taxes: one for roads and another for mental health care.
The Metro Council on Wednesday agreed to place on the ballot proposals for a 1.5-mill property tax to build a mental health crisis center and a half-penny sales tax to pay for road improvements.
Both measures have struggled in the past. An earlier version of the mental health tax failed at the polls in 2016, and Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's attempt to put a roads tax on the ballot last year failed to make it past the Metro Council.
At Wednesday's meeting, however, parish politicians and institutions lined up to throw their support behind both measures.
The sheriff, police chief, district attorney, emergency medical services director, coroner, Capital Area Human Services director and a judge all gave their enthusiastic support for the Bridge Center, which would take in nonviolent mentally ill and addicted patients who would otherwise be sent to the emergency room or jail.
Meanwhile, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, the Southside Civic Association, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the American Heart Association, the AARP and an LSU economist all spoke favorably of the roads tax.
Council members Chauna Banks, LaMont Cole, Donna Collins-Lewis, Barbara Freiberg, Erika Green, Chandler Loupe, Matt Watson, Trae Welch, Tara Wicker and Scott Wilson agreed to put the roads tax on the ballot. Denise Amoroso and Dwight Hudson voted against it.
The mental health vote was closer. Cole, Collins-Lewis, Freiberg, Green, Loupe, Watson, Welch and Wicker supported sending it to the electorate. Amoroso, Hudson and Wilson voted against, and Banks abstained.
Watson made clear he was ready to put the roads tax before the voters but said Broome will have to convince his constituents that it's worth another half-cent sales tax for the next 30 years.
Broome tried for a 5-mill property tax for roads last year, but council members shot it down, saying they weren't lobbied as much as they would have expected. That was not the case Wednesday.
MPO director Jamie Setze gave a presentation saying that by 2032, once some of the infrastructure is in place, the plan would save 4.6 million travel hours and 27.6 million fewer travel miles parishwide per year because drivers could get around the parish more efficiently.
And unlike the property tax proposal, the sales tax would be supported by out-of-parish commuters, travelers and tourists, said LSU economist Stephen Barnes. Sales taxes are not levied on groceries or prescription drugs, and he expects 21 percent of this proposed tax's revenue would come from people who live outside East Baton Rouge but are visiting, traveling through or working in the parish.
BRAC CEO Adam Knapp said every time the chamber surveys business leaders, they point to traffic congestion as the biggest impediment to doing business efficiently. Wicker urged the business community to get the word out to make sure the tax passes.
Councilman Hudson opposed both tax proposals, saying the city-parish needs "to get its financial house in order." Leaders need to re-examine dedicated taxes and retirement costs before they can ask residents for more money.
Without naming names, Collins-Lewis expressed frustration with leaders who make a blanket refusal to let constituents vote on tax proposals.
"I take issue with that," she said.
Members of the public and council members who opposed the 10-year, 1.5-mill mental health tax generally conceded that the plan is sound and addresses a need, they just wanted to explore if it could be funded through existing revenue.
Currently, law enforcement officers can take a psychotic, suicidal, high or otherwise mentally ill individual either to the emergency room or to jail, which leaders say is an ineffective use of manpower and a poor way to connect patients to the resources they need. The Bridge Center would be a facility with about 30 beds where law enforcement officers could take individuals who need emergency, short-term psychiatric care, including detoxification.
The criminal justice community showed up in force and won over a majority of the council.
The number of involuntary psychiatric commitment requests has tripled in recent years, said Coroner Beau Clark. EMS staff has seen opioid calls increase 56 percent over last year, said department director Chad Guillot. Mental health cases are "clogging up" the justice system when authorities need to focus on actual crimes, District Attorney Hillar Moore said. The jail is filling up with people who have unmet medical needs, said Sheriff Sid Gautreaux. People who aren't receiving adequate mental health treatment can be dangerous to police officers who get called to check on them, said Police Chief Murphy Paul.
Locking up psychiatric patients is a "stupid, stupid way to do business — not cost effective, never solves the problem," said District Judge Don Johnson.
"Having a mental health illness is not a crime," Moore said. "This is a population that's getting left behind by the system."
Paul added: "We cannot arrest our way out of this problem."
Council members were also moved by personal stories of people whose families were agonized by inadequately treated mental illness — such as the mother whose son tried to commit suicide-by-law enforcement.
Tax backers said an emergency facility isn't just humane, it would save money by keeping patients out of jail when their problems could be better addressed through Medicaid-funded counseling or medical care.