Baton Rouge leaders are asking voters to take a second look at funding a mental health facility where police can take disruptive or potentially dangerous people who need psychiatric help, not jail time.
A 1.5-mill property tax to fund the non-profit entity known as the Bridge Center was narrowly defeated with 49 percent of the parish-wide vote in 2016.
This time, backers are emphasizing that the plan isn’t just a humane way to treat a marginalized population but can also save money for taxpayers. By keeping the jail population down, the Bridge Center expects to be able to save the parish $54.9 million over the 10-year term of the tax, board chairwoman Kathy Kliebert wrote in a Friday statement.
With funding, the Bridge Center plans to provide up to 30 beds for patients who need acute psychiatric care for people in a mental health crisis or who need to detoxify, Kliebert said. When patients are released, case managers keep in touch with them for a few months to make sure they stay healthy.
Since the 2016 vote, the Bridge Center’s footprint has expanded. It absorbed The Phone, the local suicide hotline, and received some city-parish and grant funding to help non-violent offenders stay out of jail in exchange for receiving mental health treatment through a judicial diversion program.
The local suicide prevention hotline has consolidated its efforts with the Bridge Center, an organization which helps people with mental healt…
Councilwomen Barbara Freiberg and Tara Wicker have co-sponsored a resolution to put another 1.5-mill property tax on the Dec. 8 ballot to provide a decade’s worth of reliable funding for the Bridge Center program. The Metro Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter on Aug. 8, after which they’ll decide whether to put the item to parish voters.
A 1.5-mill tax works out to $18.75 per year on a house assessed for $200,000 with the standard homestead exemption, according to chief deputy assessor Kerry Hicks. The parish-wide millage would raise approximately $6.4 million annually, he said.
Backers say the tax will pay for itself in the form of cost savings at the parish prison. Local taxpayers are on the hook for housing and feeding inmates, plus paying for prescriptions after inmates have been incarcerated for a month and their Medicaid is revoked.
“It’s not fiscally responsible, Wicker said.
The Bridge Center will also free officers to return to the street faster instead of being stuck watching over patients in the hospital or booking them into jail.
Moreover, the East Baton Rouge jail is full, so the parish must pay other localities in Louisiana to house inmates.
If a person needs psychiatric intervention or a place to detox, they’re better off spending a few hours or days at the Bridge Center than languishing in jail, supporters say.
“I think it’s something we desperately need because we’re going to keep spending money unwisely … to deal with mentally challenged people in our community,” Freiberg said.
Bill O’Quin’s son David, who was schizophrenic, died in the parish prison five years ago after he was tied to a chair for the better part of two weeks. Working with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Bill O’Quin used the money from his settlement to pay for a study outlining the benefits of the Bridge Center.
He said he's elated that the measure is going to be brought back for a potential vote.
“It’s the right thing to do," O'quin said. "It’s financially right and it’s just right.”
In 2013, David O'Quin, a 39-year-old schizophrenic artist, was tied to a chair at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison for the better part of tw…
He’s especially excited about the outpatient treatment services the Bridge Center has planned should it receive funding. After patients are discharged from the center, staff will keep in touch with them for a few months. It’s kind of like having a probation officer who makes sure people keep taking their medication and are staying healthy, O’Quin said.
He pointed to data collected by the non-profit Treatment Advocacy Center. With outpatient treatment, people with severe mental illness are much less likely to be arrested, to become violent and to be victimized themselves. Programs have led to financial savings in New York, North Carolina and Ohio, according ti the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Yet, money isn't the only issue.
“The need to address mental health issues in our community is not only a priority for this administration, but for the families of our community," Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said in a brief written statement on Friday.
She continued, "A treatment center that will provide mental health and substance abuse services provides a humane and compassionate response to behavioral health issues as well as a more efficient way to address the problem.”
Wicker and Freiberg mentioned several factors they believe may have caused the 2016 proposal to narrowly.
They said residents were unwilling to foot a new tax so soon after the flood and some people heard Bridge Center and thought it was an infrastructure tax. In addition, the council members said, voters were still sour about management of the Council on Aging, which had recently received its own tax funding.
The councilwomen said they need to make sure voters understand the matter this time around.
Kliebert said she's hopeful the tax will pass in December. The national opioid crisis and a string of mass shootings – many in schools – have made the public more aware of mental health issues, she said.
The Bridge Center will cover some of the gaps in the system, Kliebert said, and extend help earlier than before. The non-profit has sought grants and other funding but now needs some tax support, she said.
“There are absolutely not other sources of funding,” she said.
If East Baton Rouge residents want more mental health service “they have to be willing to fund it.”