Tax funding mental illness crisis center up for vote Saturday

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - In a parish where the prison is overflowing, law enforcement leaders are throwing their support behind an alternative for those who might be suffering from mental illness.

East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux is one of several parish leaders asking people to vote for a 1.5-mill property tax that would fund a crisis stabilization center.

Rather than taking low-end offenders to prison, police could instead take them to the Bridge Center, a new facility designed to evaluate and provide treatment to those with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

"We're not doctors; we're not trained professionals in that regard," Gautreaux said. "This will give us another tool in which we can have them properly."

Four years ago, facilities like Greenwell Springs Hospital that treated those with mental disorders began shutting down. State funding had been cut off.

In the years that followed, Gautreaux said many of the people that would be treated at the hospital instead ended up in his prison. The number of people with mental health problems, Gautreaux said, has swelled from 20 percent to nearly 50 percent.

"We have a tremendous problem. We really have been inundated with people that have mental issues that we're not equipped to deal with out," Gautreaux added.

"This is an opportunity for us as a community to actively to do better for our people," said Rob Reardon, the executive director of the Bridge Center.

Reardon said they are currently eyeing the Mid-City Baton Rouge General as a possible location for the facility.

"We're going have 30 beds to start off with. People ask me, 'Oh, that's not going to be enough.' But the vast majority of people are going to be here short term because we can also refer them out to resources in the community," Reardon explained.

Some parish leaders do have concerns. Metro Councilmember Scott Wilson said that while he supports the effort, he worries that constituents in his district, which includes Central, cannot handle another tax hike after the flood.

"People have lost their homes; they lost everything," Wilson said. "You're not sure who is coming back."

Still, supporters of the plan say the project could mean less people in jail, possibly saving tax payers millions of dollars in the long-run.

The 1.5-mill property tax, which lasts for a duration of 10 years, would generate an estimated $6 million annually.

Election day is Saturday, December 10.

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