After months of debate, the Metro Council on Wednesday gave the mayor-president the authority to enter into a 10-year contract with the Bridge Center to establish a psychiatric crisis and detox facility in East Baton Rouge Parish.
The decision was made after opposition from residents who had expressed doubts about the nonprofit agency, which some said isn't qualified to oversee the day-to-day operation of the facility and isn't being transparent enough about how they intend to use revenue from the dedicated property tax voters approved to support the center.
"If you go to Bridge Center website, they don’t even have business plan. I’m concerned about that," Phil Fetterman told the council during a public hearing that sparked an hour-long debate over the agreement.
"You guys have done a poor job of convincing the community the Bridge Center is the ambassador to carry this," Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, later said. "We want to see a hardcore, concrete plan. And make it as plain as ABC-123 so people can get on board."
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Pennie Landry, another resident, asked the Metro Council to consider postponing the vote so their concerns could be addressed.
But, the council voted 7-2 to move forward with the contract.
Council members Denise Amoroso, LaMont Cole, Erika Green, Dwight Hudson, Matt Watson, Trae Welch and Tara Wicker voted "yes;" Chandler Loupe and Scott Wilson voted "no."
Councilwomen Donna Collins-Lewis and Barbara Freiberg did not attend Wednesday's meeting. Councilwoman Chauna Banks was not present for the vote, but did sit in during the discussion, expressing her own opposition with the Bridge Center's involvement.
"Overwhelmingly, people supported the tax but they don’t want it to go to the Bridge Center," Banks said. "How can y’all ignore that?"
The 1.5-mill mental health property tax, which voters approved in December, was championed by the Bridge Center, a nonprofit set up by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to provide a crisis center where people who need urgent psychiatric care can be stabilized and receive treatment.
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The facility, set to open in early 2020, will serve as an alternative to an emergency room or Parish Prison, and has garnered support from the district attorney, police chief and coroner who all sit on the Bridge Center board, as does the sheriff's jail warden.
Debate over the pending contract, called a cooperative endeavor agreement, and the Bridge Center's involvement has stretched on for months. Some people have argued the city-parish should allocate the revenue from the mental health tax to an existing government agency like Capital Area Human Services, which they said has a narrower focus and is better suited to manage a mental health facility.
Those sentiments were echoed Wednesday night, including criticism from residents who claimed that during the runup to the tax election, they never heard that the Bridge Center would operate the crisis center.
According to the proposed 10-year agreement, the Bridge Center anticipates contracting with one or more licensed service providers.
The scope of services include a mobile assessment team that can respond to law enforcement 24/7 to provide in-person evaluations, a crisis assessment center to treat patients on a voluntary or involuntary basis, sobering beds, a detox program and care management team that can provide direct services within the community.
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The city-parish is preparing the facility's budget the initial year, but the Bridge Center is required to prepare and submit an annual budget every year after that.
The Bridge Center is also responsible for any additional expenditures that exceed the annual allotment of tax revenue, pinned around $6 million, and it must provide quarterly financial statements to the mayor and Metro Council showing all uses of public dollars, including the salaries of employees at the mental health facility.
Even council members who voted "yes" had questioned Kathy Kliebert, chairwoman of the Bridge Center's board of directors, over the lack of specifics in the agreement and initial plans for the facility.
"The accountability is there," council member Dwight Hudson said during Wednesday's night discussion. "We politicize everything on this council. When we start politicizing mental illness, that’s a whole new low."
Councilwoman Tara Wicker said the tax's nearly 70 percent approval by voters serves as proof the community wants the project to come to fruition as quickly as possible.
"I don’t think we can lose the momentum and restart this process all over again," she said.
Councilman Scott Wilson said he believes the Bridge Center hasn't provided enough clarity to the voters and the council. He tried to delay the vote on the agreement for two weeks in hopes of having additional talks with Bridge Center officials.
"The things you're telling me and the (agreement) I'm getting this late today, I just don't agree with," Wilson told Kliebert. "If this was another agency, we would just be losing it. We’re 90 days from an election and we’re not much more organized than we were before it."
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In response, Kliebert explained that having the agreement in place would allow the Bridge Center board to gather proposals from providers which will help them fine tune the scope of services for the facility and adequately outline their budget.
"It will be a transparent, public process," BRAF executive director John Spain said. "We have an obligation to answer questions to great detail."