Harris County priorities: From the Astrodome to mental health

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is carrying a full portfolio as he begins his seventh year as the chief executive officer of a county whose unincorporated population will soon eclipse the city it surrounds. His priorities, as he discussed with the Chronicle editorial board recently, include knotty issues with no clear-cut solutions - the Astrodome anyone? - but also issues that directly affect the everyday lives of Harris County residents. That latter category includes a more ambitious emergency management and response operation and a regional transportation plan.

Emmett's other priority, a mental health diversion pilot program, is a priority for this community as a whole. "This is a project I cannot let fail," he has written. "The pilot program developed will benefit countless individuals, their families, taxpayers and our entire community."

The mental health diversion program is a vital work in progress. Texas ranks 50th in funding for programs designed to address these most vexing of illnesses; jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals. Emmett noted that the county deals with some 8,000 "frequent flyers," mentally ill individuals who cycle in and out of jail for years over relatively minor infractions, because we lack facilities to treat their illnesses. That's not only a waste of time, money and resources; it's also unconscionable. We applaud the judge for recognizing the urgent need.