Bridge Center organizers pivot to plan B after Baton Rouge voters reject tax for mental health facility

    The future of The Bridge Center for Hope, a proposed mental health diversion center, is up in the air now that voters have rejected a dedicated property tax to fund the facility.

    The 1.5-mill tax, which would have generated some $5.8 million a year to fund operations at the center, was defeated 51% to 49%—a mere 3,142 votes—in Saturday’s election.

    “It surely is a setback,” says East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, a supporter of The Bridge Center and a member of the nonprofit organization’s board of directors. “People expressed the critical need for this but obviously didn’t want a tax to support it.”

    The Bridge Center is the brainchild of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. It’s envisioned to be a pre-booking diversion initiative designed to help the mentally ill and chemically dependent get the treatment they need so they don’t end up in jail or local emergency rooms, which is what happens all too often. The plan is modeled after a hugely successful facility near San Antonio, which has reportedly saved that state millions of dollars in health care and incarceration costs since its inception.

    The local center would have been located at Baton Rouge General Medical Center’s Mid City campus on Florida Boulevard, and would have had 30 inpatient beds and a staff that includes physicians, mental health professionals, nurse practitioners and a pair of two-member mobile response teams. It would have also had a sobering unit, a detox unit and a longer-term respite center.

    Bridge Center Executive Director Rob Reardon, whose salary is funded by BRAF, says he is meeting with BRAF this morning to discuss the project’s future. For now, though, the plan is to pursue funding from other sources, namely public and private grants.

    “We have submitted various grants and will wait for the outcomes of these submissions,” Reardon says. “As other funding opportunities come up we will pursue them as well.”

    Former Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert, who serves as chairman of The Bridge Center’s board of directors, recently said if the millage failed the facility might open on a smaller scale and provide services as a sobering unit only, at least at first.

    “We might be able to do that through grants and other funding opportunities so we will go to Plan B,” she told Daily Report in mid-November.

    While grant funding may help The Bridge Center get up and running, grants can be problematic because they are inconsistent from year to year and typically come with restrictions on how, specifically, the money can be spent.

    “But we’ll do what we can,” Reardon says. “It’s time to regroup.”

    The tax proposal for The Bridge Center wasn’t the only one shot down by East Baton Rouge Parish voters on Saturday. Also rejected were proposed taxes that would have funded a second phase to the Green Light Plan for roadway improvements, improvements to the Raising Cane’s River Center and increased tourism promotion by Visit Baton Rouge. However, voters did approve raising the hotel occupancy tax in north Baton Rouge to create the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District. The Secretary of State’s Office has the complete, but unofficial results of Saturday’s election.

    —Stephanie Riegel

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