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Travis County seeking grant for sobriety center

Friday, January 21, 2011 by Austin Monitor

On Tuesday, Travis County commissioners voted to move forward with the evaluation of a potential county sobriety center. Though a thumbs-up/thumbs-down vote on the facility still seems far away, the schedule for a potential federal grant that may pick up as much as $500,000 of its costs forced the court to take early action.


Indeed, their unanimous vote (with Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez absent) approved only the county’s application to stay in the ongoing process for the grant. If the county does give the center a go-ahead, it would likely not open until March of 2012.


Early estimates put the cost of such a facility at roughly $1.3 million for the first year of its operation. According to the same figures, the county would have to pay $1.1 million for each additional year that the facility remains open. That figure is predicated on the idea that the county can find a space to lease that would host the program.


As court members began to go into the details surrounding the facility, it became clear just how early the county is in the process. County Attorney David Escamilla told the court that “at this point, it’s just a request to be allowed to participate and put together a proposal that would come in April.”


He added that there is “plenty of work to do” before then.


For his part, Executive Manager of Justice and Public Safety Roger Jefferies told the court that substance abuse “is a significant issue.” According to a study conducted for the county between October 1, 2006 and June 30, 2009 by the Urban Institute, 32 percent of the individuals booked into the Travis County jail over that period of time returned 64 percent of the time, and half of those individuals were charged with a class of crime that includes public intoxication.


He added, however, that the sobriety center would need to be complemented by other local facilities in order to function at its best. “The sobriety center in and of itself is not the silver bullet,” he said. “One of the important things around a tool like this is supportive services.”


Jeffries noted that he hopes to eventually get local hospitals, the Community Justice Council, and the city of Austin involved as partners in the project. He called for the court to “include the sobriety center concept in a larger strategy with permanent supportive housing and an expansion of mental health resources and other possible initiatives.”


The sobriety center has been on the county’s radar for about a decade. As currently conceived it could, according to a document provided to the court, “provide an alternative to arrest and incarceration in the local jail” for individuals charged with public intoxication. 


“Ideally,” it continues, “these programs offer medically supervised detoxification services, case management and other supportive services to reduce the revolving door cycle of jail stays for chronic inebriates.”


The county will know by July if it has received the grant.

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