Rhonda Wallace

Rhonda Wallace

The Georgia General Assembly’s 2019 session opens today at 10 a.m. and local lawmakers have a wish list from the Floyd County Commission.

Topping the list: Help with mental health issues in the community, compounded by the opioid crisis, that are straining the county jail.

"We want some guidance from the state on how to put this all under one umbrella with somebody taking the lead," Commission Chair Scotty Hancock said. "We're willing to do our part, but right now it's a shotgun approach. Everybody's repeating the same thing and nothing's getting done.”

County Manager Jamie McCord said the county had added a mental health court and drug court and joined the national Stepping Up program. The board also added another $100,000 to its $2.5 million medical contract at the jail, he said, for mental health analyses during and after intake.

The discussion came during a meeting with the legislative delegation last week.

Jail Administrator Bob Sapp said 15 percent of the inmates have serious mental health issues. Factor in substance abuse and addiction and about 40 percent are affected, he said.

"In Georgia, not a single jail got a single penny for the wave of mental health problems we knew was coming (when the state shifted to community-based care)," Sapp said. "One official said they didn't want them in jail. I said, 'how's that working out for you?'"

Discussion touched briefly on the state repurposing the closed Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital property as a regional center for mental health services. Many nonprofits are at work in the county as well, and commissioners said they also could use more funding and direction.

"We need a coordinator," Commissioner Rhonda Wallace said.

Newly elected Rep. Mitchell Scoggins, R-Rydal, a retired Bartow County probate judge, said his county depended heavily on NWGRH before it was shuttered in 2011.

"Mental health care has really gone downhill," Scoggins noted. "We didn't have anywhere to send anybody but jail or home."

Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, said his service on the Rural Development Council made it clear that information-sharing is key to helping communities be more efficient in dealing with the problems.

However, Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, noted that there was pushback from agencies reluctant to give up their data when she and Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, chaired a joint committee on a potential initiative last year. But there are plans in the works this year.

"It looks like this is going to be high on Gov. (Brian) Kemp's list of priorities," Dempsey said. "Not the hospital property, but mental health."

Among the initiatives backed by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia is a network of regional Behavioral Health Crisis Centers. Law enforcement officers could take individuals in crisis there instead of to jail or the emergency room. The centers also would provide walk-in help to individuals and their families.