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Bridge Center board chair Kathy Kliebert speaks August 8, during a meeting of the Metro Council. The council authorized 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.

When East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilman Matt Watson talked up a pay raise for the city's police officers, it was a good idea whose time had not come. Other members of the Metro Council were not unsupportive of police officers, although there is a considerable queasiness about any kind of tax increase.

Ultimately, that proposal died last year, in part because a larger study of police pay levels has not come in. Watson says today that the idea is still a good one, but even the 8 mills of new property taxes that he proposed then would only have been a modest increase for officers. Other jurisdictions, including New Orleans Police Department and Louisiana State Police, as well as suburban forces in the Baton Rouge area, are typically paying more.

Short of a pay raise, what can the people of Baton Rouge do for their police officers? Making their jobs easier is one really good idea, and the means to do so is the 1.5 mill property tax proposed on the Dec. 8 ballot.

It would create a Bridge Center, a 30-bed facility to take the mentally ill off the hands of officers, who are all too often the first responders when somebody is off their meds and causing trouble.

The array of law enforcement officials backing the proposal include EBR Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and District Attorney Hillar Moore III. Both agencies have a particular interest in the issue. Too many folks are locked up in Gautreaux’s prison, or clogging up Moore’s court dockets, because mental health services are not available.

For the cop on the beat, hours of a shift can be spent taking a disorderly man off the streets to an emergency room or into Parish Prison. It’s a huge time- and thus money-waster for the police officer or deputy, as well as the taxpayers.

“The jail is not where the mentally ill should be,” adds BRPD Chief Murphy Paul.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation funded a deep study of the issue and came up with the Bridge Center, based on a successful model in San Antonio.

Unfortunately, in part because it was proposed among other controversial matters in the waning days of the last mayoral administration, a 2-mill proposal was defeated in late 2016. The new plan is a bit slimmed-down and reflects the experience of other places around the country. One is close to Baton Rouge, where St. Tammany Parish is funding diversion of mental health cases.

A specialty center for these cases will allow follow-up services to keep people medicated or otherwise prevent them from becoming public nuisances again. Many of the offenders are frequent-flyers, for the officers or deputies, but treatment is not the job of law enforcement.

In San Antonio, the savings every year are in the millions, though those come in ways that the taxpayer does not readily see. But there are real costs: Fewer people in the jail saves money, particularly because Baton Rouge is housing some prisoners out of the parish when the prison is full. The time of law enforcement is itself a valuable commodity.

But the big payoff is when, not if, the taxpayer is called upon to replace the aging and inefficient Parish Prison. That is a huge capital expenditure, one that will be significantly smaller if the prison population can be reduced.

The Bridge Center is an extremely cost-effective way to save that money down the road, and not that far down, either.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.