Money for fixing Baton Rouge roads, new mental health facility OK’d by voters

The Advocate

A pair of tax proposals for road improvements and a mental health facility cruised to easy victories in Saturday’s election.

The roads tax will raise $912 million through a 30-year, half-cent sales tax. The Bridge Center psychiatric facility won a 1.5-mill property tax for the next 10 years.

Versions of both proposals had failed in the past, but each carried more than 60 percent of the vote this time around.

“I’m just amazed. I never expected that type of support,” Bridge Center Chairwoman Kathy Kliebert said in an interview.

“Today’s outcome is the result of a tremendous showing of bi-partisan support for this program, which signals a renewed ability to collaborate and innovate on future solutions to advance our city and parish,” Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome wrote of the roads tax in a statement.

Both women hope to give voters a return on their investment within the next year.

Broome’s next meeting will be with her transportation director. They’ll begin looking to hire a manager for her program, dubbed MovEBR, the mayor said in an interview. In addition to physically widening roads, the plan allocates funds to synchronize the parish’s traffic signals, work which Broome expects can begin soon.

Tax money for the 30-bed Bridge Center won’t be available until 2020, but Kliebert hopes the city-parish will loan the nonprofit some money to get off the ground more quickly. It will still take about six to nine months to staff up and get ready to open, she said.

The Baton Rouge General Hospital-Mid City campus is the most likely home for the center.

The Bridge Center carried a commanding 68 percent of the vote in an election with 26 percent turnout. MovEBR claimed 61 percent support.

East Baton Rouge turnout for last month’s congressional election was 153,555, or 54 percent of the electorate. Turnout was 40 percent in December 2016, when the Bridge Center and a roads tax proposed by the Kip Holden mayoral administration failed. The 2016 race also included a mayoral race, though.

Kliebert credits the Bridge Center’s success this time around to a concerted publicity push — much more than had been attempted in 2016 when a similar measure failed. Supporters reached out to the media and attended many community meetings, even if it was just to explain the tax to five or 10 people at a time, she said.

Once voters understood what they were getting, Bridge Center advocates were able to win them over, Kliebert continued. Now, the Bridge Center must prove its worth, she said.

Saturday marked the second time Broome tried to pass a roads tax. Last year she attempted a 5-mill property tax — the Better Transportation and Roads plan — but the Metro Council refused to put it on the ballot.

The mayor’s administration put considerable time, reputation and political capital into passing a roads plan. Broome recalled her vow not to give up when the council spiked her first attempt and felt vindicated with passage of the tax Saturday night.

“I’m extremely thankful, very pleased,” she said.

The mayor pivoted to a sales tax in the new iteration. In addition to raising twice as much money as the millage, she hoped the sales tax would be more palatable to Baton Rouge voters, since commuters and tourists would also contribute.

The MovEBR plan includes more than 70 projects around the parish, including widening major thoroughfares and synchronizing traffic signals.

Broome pitched the proposal as a timesaver. By the year 2032, all drivers combined are expected to save 1.1 million gallons of gasoline and 573 years of time that would be lost sitting in traffic without the improvements contained in the proposal, according to a much-publicized study by the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

She leaned on business leaders like the Baton Rouge Area Chamber to talk up the tax, and said Saturday night that its passage will make the parish more attractive to businesses.

Broome continued to advocate for the MovEBR tax until the very end, posting a short video to Facebook at 5:26 p.m. reminding voters that the rain had let up and they still had 2½ hours to head to their precincts. The plan would ease traffic throughout the parish — traffic that could hold up ambulances and emergency crews — she promised.

The Bridge Center proposal had won enthusiastic support from local criminal justice leaders seeking an option other than the jail or emergency room when officers encounter people who are in urgent need of psychiatric help.

The sheriff, Baton Rouge police chief, district attorney and coroner all lined up behind the measure. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation performed the studies that laid the groundwork for the Bridge Center.

“Everybody’s just ecstatic,” Kliebert said as it became apparent the proposal would receive funding.

Proponents said the Bridge Center will unclog the jail and courts and give people with mental illness the help they need. Such a plan is safer for people who need help and the officers who encounter them, the officials said.

The center will be more humane while saving the parish money associated with housing and caring for inmates, especially at a time when opioid abuse is soaring and exacerbating the need for psychiatric services, lawmen and medical professionals have said.

Detractors generally acknowledged the need for a crisis center, but questioned whether it could be funded through existing revenue and whether the collections could go toward a government entity like Capital Area Human Services rather than a separate nonprofit.

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