Holden backs off tax proposal for Oct., but some support need for mental health facility

Mayor will not push for tax election on October


Mayor Kip Holden said he will not try to put his rejected tax proposal on the ballot for October's election, but two council members are hoping to find other sources of funding for one of the mayor's public safety projects.

Holden asked the East Baton Rouge Metro Council to sign off on a May election in order to allow the public to weigh in on the taxes that would fund public safety projects, including a new jail and a new mental health facility. The mayor said the need for the funding is an emergency.

"This was a very serious effort and I cannot afford to play any games," Holden said in a written statement. "We could face federal sanctions on the prison and the mental health issue is very serious, too - and mental health is nothing for us to play around with."

While the majority of Metro Council members did not want to raise taxes, they may still pursue at least one of the mayor's projects, the mental health restoration center.

"Clearly, there is a need for the mental health facility," said Councilman John Delgado. "I think that was the strongest component of the proposal from the administration."

When the Earl K. Long Hospital closed nearly two years ago, Baton Rouge also lost the city's Mental Health Emergency Room Extension, or MHERE. According to a report by Dr. Jan Kasofsky, a mental health specialist, in the 20 months that MHERE was open, it served an average of nearly 160 patients every month. Each patient dealt with severe mental health issues and nearly half of them were referred through law enforcement.

Without MHERE, these patients now wind up in emergency rooms around the city and in jail. According to data from the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, 800 of 1,700 inmates housed in EBR need mental health treatment. Warden Dennis Grimes told the Metro Council that the prison is not built to handle mental health patients and that many of these patients should not be housed in jail.

Delgado believes a new mental health facility could be built without raising taxes to take those patients. He and Councilman Ryan Heck have requested a financial report from the mayor's office to see where the funding could be found.

"Whether that is through federal grants, whether it's through taxing structures we can create, whether that is from savings that we don't have to house prisoners in the parish prison anymore [because] we're putting them in a mental health facility," Delgado added.

Grimes told the council the prison is overcrowded, partly due to the high number of mentally ill inmates. He added several hundred prisoners have to be housed in other parishes at a cost of $25 per prisoner per day.

Delgado said if the prison can clear even 500 beds, it would save the parish $12,500 a day, which could be enough to help pay for a mental health facility.

However, Holden seemed doubtful.

"Proposals being made by some council members would probably face a legal challenge, such as using money voters committed for libraries," Holden's statement ended.

The issue is expected to resurface at the next council meeting.

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