Opinion

Simple math a solution to drug treatment problem

Bibb County, like most areas of the state, has been hit hard by expanding services and declining revenues. Commissioners are trying to hold the line on expenses, cutting where they can and adjusting to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the budget ax has to fall, and wielded inappropriately, it can be penny wise and dollar foolish. Such is the case pertaining to River Edge Behavioral Health Center that runs drug, alcohol and mental health programs funded by local, state and federal money.

During Bibb County's last budget cycle it cut its funding to some agencies, including River Edge by 11 percent. That was before the state caught a cold and slashed 6 percent of the money provided for such services, forcing River Edge to cut $1.3 million, and in the process, it eliminated the outpatient treatment program that serves 600 people.

Tuesday, Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, a member of the River Edge board, asked the commission to restore $172,000 so the outpatient program could continue through the end of the budget year. With Commissioner Bert Bivins absent, the matter ended in a 2-2 tie with Edwards and Commissioner Joe Allen voting to spend the money and commissioners Elmo Richardson, also on the River Edge board, and Charlie Bishop voting against it.

It was a strange vote. The commission sees the need for a treatment facility. It voted in February to explore forming a not-for-profit corporation to solicit funds to pay for one, but the committee's work to investigate whether or not the idea is feasible is far from done. The problem facing the commission is simple: Pay now or pay later at a higher cost.

Chief Deputy Russell Nelson believes some of the 600 people being treated by River Edge will end up in his jail. Nelson puts that number at 125, almost 21 percent of those being treated. We should be so lucky. Even if that low number proves accurate, it will cost taxpayers $2.4 million annually to house and feed those who end up incarcerated.

And jail costs are only part of the equation. Societal costs are huge as the addicted or mentally ill commit crimes to support their habits. Expect unreimbursed hospital costs to rise as well. Bishop and Richardson want to get the city involved, but they should be able to accurately guess what the city's response will be. The city and county can't even agree on how to handle stray pets, much less people who are ravaged by drugs or mental illness. That leaves but one real option. It's pretty simple math; either we pay $172,000 to cover the outpatient program through next June or pay in excess of $2 million if we let the problem fester.

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