By Lanny Keller, theadvocate.com
If there is one thing that the law enforcement community agrees upon, across the country as well as in Baton Rouge, it is that too many folks with mental health problems are locked up in jails.
That's hard on jailers, hard on the police officers who have to arrest "frequent flyers" on the streets without their meds, and hard on taxpayers who are paying jail costs.
"Jail is not the place where people with mental illnesses should be," Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul told the Press Club of Baton Rouge earlier this summer.
While the big new bond issue for road projects in Baton Rouge drew most of the attention last month, when ballot propositions were scheduled, the array of officials and institutions backing a smaller property tax millage for mental health diversion suggest a groundswell of support for it.
The Baton Rouge Metro Council backed a Dec. 8 election for a 1.5-mill property tax to build a mental health crisis center.
The idea is not new, but it has been modestly revised since an earlier version of the mental health tax narrowly failed at the polls in late 2016. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation has funded studies and brought in experts from other cities who have successfully attacked this common urban problem. Baton Rouge would not be reinventing the wheel.
Before the council, the sheriff, police chief, district attorney, emergency medical services director, coroner, Capital Area Human Services director and a judge all gave their enthusiastic support for the Bridge Center, which would take in nonviolent mentally ill and addicted patients who would otherwise be sent to the emergency room or jail.
Mental health cases are "clogging up" the justice system when authorities need to focus on actual crimes, District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.
Surprisingly, as the millage is dwarfed by the half-cent sales tax proposed for roads, the council vote to put the mental health measure on the ballot was closer. Lamont Cole, Donna Collins-Lewis, Barbara Freiberg, Erika Green, Chandler Loupe, Matt Watson, Trey Welch and Tara Wicker supported sending it to the electorate. Denise Amoroso, Dwight Hudson and Scott Wilson voted against, and Chauna Banks abstained.
Opposition to the idea was not to the concept of diversion itself but based on finding new — and by opponents, unspecified — sources of revenue to build and operate a facility.
This is hardly persuasive. If people waited to deal with pressing problems until government gets its financial house in order, as Hudson said, precious little would ever be passed. Law enforcement has a problem with these people every day.
The GOP members opposing the plan may have a legitimate point about costs of government, but much of that is because of a problem they cannot generate the collective political will to fix, retirement and health care costs. Those are rising for every governmental unit in America. The opponents also represent heavily suburban districts where property taxes, although deductible from federal income taxes, are unpopular.
The worst idea for Baton Rouge: Cutting existing dedicated taxes, such as those for libraries or other public services. One, this will probably not happen, as those were passed by voters and are popular services. Two, robbing Peter to pay Paul makes so little sense.
The array of popular officials backing the Bridge Center proposal, such as Moore and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, may well be more influential with citizens than those voting "no" with no plan.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.