The Prince William County Community Services Board, the county's mental health agency, urged the Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday to consider opening a $600,000 24-hour group home to serve the mentally ill.

Lisa Madron, community support services division manager, told the board that the number of beds around the region where the county generally sends mentally ill residents is shrinking and that the county must fill the void.

"About a week ago, we had a situation where we couldn't find a bed for a client, and the client had to be released," Madron said.

The county serves about 123 clients at any given time through counseling and group homes. The county does have its own "intensive residential service," a group-home setting that would help clients "stabilize" without entering a hospital or institution, Madron said.

The proposed group home would have four or five beds. Although it would not solve the county's crisis, "we'd like to start there," she said.

The Community Services Board wants supervisors to include the group home when it meets in the fall to create the county's strategic goals for next year. Federal and state money, as well as Medicaid and client fees, could help fund the group home, Madron said.

Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said the county must "bite the bullet" and simply fund the home.

Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) said she would like to see how much it would cost to provide the same service by contracting it out. Madron said she would pull together the comparisons when she presents the board with a formal proposal for the home.

Madron's presentation to the board at its meeting Tuesday stressed that the dwindling number of beds is causing the crisis.

In fiscal 2004, the county provided services to 177 clients. About 54 percent were female, the median age was 50.5, 60 percent were diagnosed with schizophrenia and 28 percent suffered from bipolar disorders, according to the Community Services Board.

As the county's population has grown, so have the number of mentally ill and the demand for care, Madron said.

According to Community Services Board data, 50 adult beds were lost when three private psychiatric hospitals closed in the region in 2004. The Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in nearby Falls Church often operates at 98 percent occupancy and cannot take Prince William clients.

Employees have spent as long as eight hours on the phone trying to find a bed for a client, Madron said. The county sheriff's office has had to drive clients as far away as Chesapeake, Va., because that was the only place where a psychiatric bed was available, Madron said.

The county opened a 24-hour residential group home with six beds in 1986, but it closed two years later because it did not have enough clients, she said. "I don't think we'll have those challenges anymore," Madron said.