Operational funding bill no guarantee of construction

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Department of Finance and Administration executive directorwill not commit to the possible construction of a mental healthcrisis center in Brookhaven until legislation removing a fundingobstacle has been signed into law.

Despite mounting political pressure in both houses of theLegislature, Col. J.K. “Hoopy” Stringer said he can not commit tothe center’s construction until the bill is passed into law and theseven-year-old program is re-evaluated.

“I will not go on record right now until we can do thatre-evaluation,” he said.

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As executive director of the DFA, Stringer determines whichstate buildings are constructed and when. Stringer said he can notcommit until he sees the final form of House Bill 210 because”legislation tends to be changed through the process.”

House Bill 210, designed to fully fund the operational costs ofseven mental health centers, has passed that chamber and ispresently awaiting action in the Senate AppropriationsCommittee.

Bonds for the construction of the seven centers were approved in1999.

Seven facilities were included in the overall plan and six – inAlcorn, Bolivar, Grenada, Jones, Newton and Panola counties – havebeen built. A center in Brookhaven is the only one remaining to beconstructed.

In support of the crisis center, the City of Brookhavenpurchased 4.5 acres of land for the center at a cost of $90,000 anddonated it to the Department of Mental Health. A contract to buildthe facility was canceled in May 2004.

Of the facilities built, only the center in Corinth is fullyoperational. The other five facilities are running at 50 percentbecause the funding is not available to fully staff them.

In addition to waiting on the operational funding legislation’sapproval, Stringer wants to examine the mental health crisis centerin Corinth and see if any adjustments need to be made in itsprograms or operations.

“It hasn’t been looked into very closely,” he said. “Nothing hasjumped to the top and been noticeable, but there has been nore-evaluation. There’s a lot of new factors that can arise overseven years.”

He admitted, however, that he had heard nothing negative aboutthe crisis center programs nor had they experienced any problems hewas aware of.

Stringer and Gov. Haley Barbour have been opposed to buildingthe Brookhaven center, saying it did not make sense to construct abuilding without the operating funds to staff and manage it.

Senate Appropriations Committee member District 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, said she is confident the pending billwill pass the committee and floor action. The appropriationscommittee will begin debating bills Tuesday.

Hyde-Smith is uncertain, however, whether the removal of theoperational funding obstacle will be enough to get the centerbuilt.

“I’m not sure we’re going to get it because of (Stringer’s)position,” she said.

Mental health patients in southwest Mississippi are presentlybeing held county jails until a bed becomes free at state-sponsoredmental health hospitals.

Lincoln County Jail Warden Ralph Boone said it is not a fairsystem for the patients nor for the jails.

“We are not equipped nor staffed to manage mental patients,” hesaid. “I sure hope we can do something about that. There’s no placefor them here.”

Boone estimated 40-45 mental patients a year are held at thejail for up to 30 days before they can be transferred to a suitablefacility.

Following a Tuesday House Appropriations Committee meeting inwhich crisis center funding was discussed, Franklin County SheriffJames Newman told the The Clarion-Ledger his jail canhouse 20 people. But taking in mentally ill people causescrowding.

“We need something in southwest Mississippi,” he said. “We’repart of the state, too.”