Whatever you think of Collis Temple Jr., and he’s been not only a businessman but highly politically active for years, he understood quickly the downside of failing to be open about the spending of taxpayer dollars.
That level of common sense appears to have been absent from the board members and lawyers of the Bridge Center for Hope.
The nonprofit is charged with spending millions of taxpayer dollars for a critically needed center for crisis interventions with the mentally ill and those needing detox services. But when it agreed to lease one of Temple’s properties on Florida Boulevard, based on the recommendation from national operator RI International, two things had to happen.
First, Temple had to leave the board, which he did. Secondly, the lease agreement needed to be made public. With Temple declaring he had no problem with that, it was, but only after public records requests by this newspaper.
That the lease’s disclosure happened only under pressure worries us about the tone-deafness of the board.
We want the Bridge Center to succeed. The Baton Rouge area desperately needs this kind of operation. It will provide an alternative to intervene with the mentally ill who cause trouble and end up in the parish prison. That’s vital to law enforcement and saves money in the long run for the community.
Nor is it unreasonable that the nonprofit board would contract with a provider for the services. It is complex to treat future clients and to bill Medicaid or insurance, for example, when possible to help with costs.
But it’s a mistake to treat the check from East Baton Rouge Parish taxpayers — $60 million over ten years — as a blank wall of a purely private transaction. It’s not.
If nothing else, we’d remind the movers and shakers that the 1.5-mill tax passed in December 2018 is a new venture. While we are confident that the results should persuade voters to renew it 10 years hence, that cannot be taken for granted, even at this early stage.
Finally, where is the dividing line between public and private operations?
We argue that the taxpayer funding — almost 100% if you include taxpayer-funded Medicaid that may provide some money — makes this a public facility with a public purpose answerable not just to board members but to the public at large who are paying the bills.
We’d also argue one thing is critical to the success of the center, and the renewal of its tax: A public-private partnership should not be defined as the public writing a fat check, and private interests dividing up the money behind closed doors.