Bridge Center could open next summer if mental health tax passes

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Should the mental health property tax win voter approval on Saturday, the new Bridge Center could open as early as this summer, Bridge Center Board Chair Kathy Kliebert said during today’s Press Club luncheon.

Funds from the 1.5-mill property tax wouldn’t be given to the center until January 2020, Kliebert says, but with advance payments from the city, Kliebert hopes to begin hiring staff and securing a space for the center as soon as possible.

“It’s still going to take six to nine months,” Kliebert says. “We’re hoping to be open by the end of next summer or early next fall.”

The proposed property tax would collect an estimated $60 million for the center over the course of a decade. The facility plans to staff approximately 45 full-time employees—including nurses, social workers and psychiatrists—and will be able to serve as many as 5,000 people each year.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore and Coroner Dr. Beau Clark both said they’ve already voted in favor of the tax during early voting, touting the importance of the tax to help keep the mentally ill out of jail and the emergency rooms.

Clark—as he previously told Business Report—says he handles about 9,000 mental health cases a year, telling the Press Club that mental health issues are often intertwined with substance abuse.

Calling the tax “the best insurance policy you can take on your child,” Moore says the Bridge Center is desperately needed, estimating that 60% of the prison population has mental health issues.

“Otherwise you can spend $1,500 a minimum for a bond and get no help for your child,” Moore says. “You spend a minimum $5,000 on hiring a lawyer. That $6,500 is going to do absolutely nothing for your child, but for $18 a year, you can save someone’s life.”

Police Chief Murphy Paul is prevented from taking a public position on the tax proposal but says the Bridge Center would give his officers more time to focus on those committing crimes and less on people who need mental treatment.

“We’ve treated mental illness and addiction like a crime,” Paul says. “In reality, mental illness and addiction is a disease, and we need to start treating both as such. …Neither jail nor the emergency room gives (the mentally ill) the care they need.”

Asked about the relatively low voter turnout during early voting, Kliebert said she was concerned but hoped those who did vote supported the property tax. Kliebert doesn’t believe the MovEBR tax plan, also on Saturday’s ballot, is affecting the Bridge Center’s passage chances, saying each are separate issues.

Phillip LaFargue