Officials frustrated over crisis center inaction

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, February 21, 2006

While similar facitlities have been built in other parts of thestae, Lincoln County officials are upset at a lack of progress inefforts to have a mental health crisis intervention center built inBrookhaven to serve southwest Mississippi.

“It just infuriates me to see all sections of the state preparedand ready to go and this section of the state being told to housethem in the jail,” said Chancery Clerk Tillmon Bishop, who hasspearheaded the county’s efforts to build the facility.

Several county and city officials are closely watching HouseBill 210, which the Senate Appropriations Committee could begindebating as soon as tomorrow. The bill would provide full fundingfor seven mental health crisis centers in the state.

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A Brookhaven mental health crisis center would provide relieffor 10 counties in southwest Mississippi, he said. The 20-bedfacility would have a staffing of approximately 30-40 people andprovide some outpatient services under the original plan.

State funding for the construction of the project was approvedin 1999. It continues to sit idly in the bank because Gov. HaleyBarbour and Department of Finance and Administration Col. J.K.”Hoopy” Stringer oppose construction since there is no funding tooperate it.

The Brookhaven facility was one of seven funded during the 1999Legislative session. Six have been built – in Alcorn, Bolivar,Grenada, Jones, Newton and Panola counties.

“I don’t understand why it hasn’t been built yet,” said DistrictFour Supervisor Doug Moak. “The money was appropriated and we evenhad a ground-breaking ceremony. The contract was let for theproject.”

Stringer canceled the contract in 2004 and blames an economicdownturn beginning in 2000 for the delay on the Brookhaven center.He said the state cannot afford to fund the operations of theexisting facilities and he will not release the funding toconstruct the center here until the operating funds areavailable.

The Corinth facility is fully operational, but the other fiveexisting centers have been operating at half capacity since theywere constructed, said Stringer, citing funding shortfalls.

Bishop said he believes lawmakers should be frugal withtaxpayers’ money, but this is one area where they are not beingbold enough.

“This has been an eye-opening experience for me,” he said. “Mostpeople are not aware of how critical this mental health situationreally is.”

The City of Brookhaven and Lincoln County have already made aninvestment by splitting the $90,000 cost of property on BrookmanDrive Extension and donating it to the Department of Mental Healthfor the facility.

The center would serve as a sort of staging area for patientsuntil room becomes available at a state hospital. Without thecenter, mentally ill patients that could pose a danger tothemselves or others have to housed in the county jail.

“Most times, families or friends can take care of them,” Bishopsaid. “When that’s not possible, they have to go to the jailbecause we do not have this facility. They don’t deserve to be inthe jail, but our hands are tied. There’s nowhere else to sendthem.”

Bishop estimated his office handled about 70 cases of mentallyill people in 2005. Lincoln County Jail Warden Ralph Boone has saidapproximately 40-45 had to be housed in the jail for up to 30 daysduring the year.

“And that’s just in Lincoln County. Imagine the numbers for 10counties,” Bishop said.

Bishop said Brookhaven is “caught up in a difference ofphilosophy.”

“All the others were started and built under the previousgovernor. We kind of got caught between governors,” he said. “It’sjust not a priority with this governor. This part of the state isbeing ignored in this area.”

What that does, Bishop said, is leave southwest Mississippi inthe cold when it comes to caring for its mentally ill.

“If the bill were approved tomorrow, we would still have to gothrough construction and staffing before we could even begin tobenefit from it. That puts it a year or more behind the other areasof the states,” he said. “That’s just sad.”