East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark speaks on item 61, Wednesday, August 8, 2018, during a meeting of the metro council at City Hall in Baton Rouge, La. Item 61authorized a 1.5 mills tax for a period of 10 years to be used entirely and exclusively for the purpose of operating and maintaining a treatment center that will provide mental health and substance abuse services.

Health and law enforcement leaders hope to open a new psychiatric crisis center on Baton Rouge General Hospital’s mid-city campus — assuming their tax proposal passes Saturday, that is.

Baton Rouge’s coroner, district attorney and police chief made a fresh pitch for the Bridge Center to the local press club Monday. The three men and the sheriff have repeatedly said that having a dedicated facility where officers can bring mentally ill and addicted people will reduce crowding at the jail, constructively address the opioid epidemic, improve officer safety and let law enforcement officers focus on serious crimes.

The 1.5-mill property tax to fund such a center has enjoyed broad support, though not everyone at Monday’s event was convinced.

A group calling itself the Committee to Support Equitable Healthcare for All released a 14-page document saying that while mental healthcare resources are needed, the money should go to an existing political entity.

The Bridge Center is to be operated by a new non-profit, following significant advance work by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The civic and religious leaders in the Committee would like the effort to be run through Capital Area Human Services, which was created by the state Legislature in 1997, the Rev. Alexis Anderson said. That way, she said, CAHS can put out an official request for proposals, which the committee believes would be a more-transparent process.

CAHS has been involved in the development of the Bridge Center, and the agency’s director sits on the non-profit’s board, CAHS chairman Tom Sawyer wrote in a Monday statement.

"We commend Dr. (Jan) Kasofsky for dedicating technical expertise to clinical services design for emergency mental health services, along with other mental health advocates in the community who serve on the Bridge Center board of directors in a volunteer capacity," Sawyer wrote.

Bridge Center chairwoman Kathy Kliebert also told the Baton Rouge Press Club that it’s valuable to fund an entity with a specific focus. If resources are disbursed through an agency with a more general function, they could be split up or just disappear as priorities change, said Kliebert, the former secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

The Bridge Center tax is scheduled to last 10 years, during which time it can be expected to save $55 million due to reductions in prison medical costs, fees associated with housing inmates out-of-parish when the local jail is full and other expenses, Kliebert said.

It will also protect officers, Police Chief Murphy Paul said. The chief said the first time an officer was shot on his watch, the shooter’s mother told him she had tried over and over to get him psychiatric help but always ran into challenges. Paul was excited that part of the Bridge Center’s 45-person team will include assessment teams that go into the field and help connect people with mental health resources.

DA Hillar Moore, meanwhile, didn’t mince words. He knows a similar tax proposal failed two years ago and wants to make sure the mentally ill get treated like patients, not criminals.

“A lot of times we treat animals better,” he said. “This is desperately needed from where we sit. … I really think this is our last chance to get this done.”

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