Business of Politics

LPSO to Privatize Recovery Center Sheriff Mark Garber says the Acadiana Recovery Center has been hemorrhaging money; plans are underway to turn it over to a private operator.

by Walter Pierce

Patients await intake at ARC.
Photo by Robin May

The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office is finalizing a contract with a Baton Rouge company that operates drug-recovery centers to take over the Acadiana Recovery Center in Lafayette, which, according to Sheriff Mark Garber, is deeply in the red.

“Every year that goes by, we lose money on it,” Garber tells ABiz. “It’s fair to say that things are tight for us financially.”

Sheriff Mark Garber
Photo by Robin May

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016 — unlike LCG, which operates on a Nov. 1-Oct. 31 fiscal year, the sheriff’s office conforms to the state’s July 1-June 30 fiscal year — the Acadiana Recovery Center had $1.9 million in revenue and roughly $4.2 million in expenses, a $2,240,458 loss. (It lost $1.9 million the prior year, $1.6 million the year before that and $1.2 the year before that. See a trend in reverse?)

ARC was opened by the city of Lafayette in the mid-1990s, billed as a free substance-abuse center for Lafayette residents on an outpatient basis with plans for adding two dozen inpatient beds on the top floor, which have since been added. The state paid $2 million for construction of the facility at the corner of West Vermilion and Washington streets adjacent to the Lafayette Parish Correction Center. The land was donated by the sheriff’s office, which owns the building. (The ARC building is distinguishable by its anti-suicide barricade on the roof.) Prior to ARC opening, the closest free drug recovery centers for Lafayette residents were in Lake Charles and Morgan City.

The city and, after consolidation, Lafayette Consolidated Government operated ARC until 2013 when the sheriff’s office took over operations under the auspices of the LPSO’s Treatment Programs Department. ARC takes court-ordered patients as well as others who pay for treatment with private insurance and Medicaid.

Garber tells ABiz he was told by ARC’s former director, Marie Collins, that the facility was on sound financial footing and even turning a modest annual profit.

“I was completely and totally under the impression that the ARC was operating in the black, meaning it wasn’t costing taxpayers any money,” he asserts.

But one afternoon, not long after he was sworn into office last year, Garber had an epiphany after seeing ARC personnel shuttling patients in an LPSO van.

“I said to myself, ‘I wonder if that’s an expense that’s being allocated. In fact, I need to look at ARC as a business unit and make sure every expense is allocated to the ARC, so I have a true picture of what is being done.’” Turns out, not all ARC expenses were on ARC’s books, starting, Garber says, with Collins’ salary.

When the sheriff’s office performed an accounting of operations at ARC, Garber found that it had been losing money at a steadily increasing rate dating back to before the sheriff’s office took it over in ’13. He approached LCG about taking it back but was rebuffed, so he started looking for a public-private partnership and settled on Woodlake Management, which operates eponymous addiction recovery centers in the Baton Rouge area.

At this writing, the LPSO and Woodlake are negotiating a one-year contract that would turn over operations and management to Woodlake, who would pay the sheriff’s office $15,000 a month to lease the ARC facility on West Vermilion.

Photo by Robin May

That would erase the running deficit associated with the facility and add $180,000 in rent to the LPSO’s bottom line. The term of the contract is short so that both sides can make sure it’s feasible, according to LPSO Chief Financial Officer Grayson LaCombe.

“That’s their business — that’s what they do,” Garber says of Woodlake. “I do law enforcement. They do private treatment. I think they’re better suited to do it.”

Under the terms of the contract, ARC employees would work for Woodlake rather than LPSO. LaCombe says ARC employees who are near retirement and want to remain with the sheriff’s office will be reassigned to other divisions.

Garber says he wondered even before his swearing-in why the sheriff’s office had taken over the center in ’13 and asked then-Director of Corrections Rob Reardon about it. Reardon, Garber recalls, told him the LPSO took charge because it was financially feasible and operating the center fit with former Sheriff Mike Neustrom’s emphasis on rehabilitation of drug-addicted offenders to reduce recidivism — a goal that Garber campaigned on and one he says he still embraces.

“I approached [Woodlake] looking for some way not to shut the ARC down — that’s my goal, to not shut it down, to see those services provided,” the sheriff says.

“I’m not taking a position that I have to break even or make money on a program like the ARC — not my position at all,” Garber notes. “I understand that this is a necessary thing for the public. Reducing recidivism by rehabilitation is valuable. I admire Sheriff Neustrom for taking the approach of a multi-faceted attack on the underlying issues behind a lot of property crime, which is drug abuse.”