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County may join city in developing local sobriety center

Thursday, March 13, 2014 by Jimmy Maas

Travis County Commissioners took a step Tuesday toward developing a sobriety center for the Austin area. The resolution passed unanimously, though it came with a few caveats.


Commissioners instructed their staff to work with the City of Austin and other stakeholders to develop the sobriety centers as an alternative to incarceration for those found intoxicated in public.


And there is apparently a need for one: Austin was ranked the fifth “Drunkest Cities in America” behind Boston, Norfolk, Va., Milwaukee and Charleston, S.C. in a 2012 poll. The rankings, published by The Daily Beast, evaluated American cities on the average number of drinks per capita, the percentage of population considered binge drinkers and the percentage of population considered heavy drinkers.


A person brought to a sobriety center would not pay a fine and would be supervised medically until sober. They would be released and, in cases where the person has a dependency problem, they could receive detoxification services if they choose to do so. Houston and San Antonio already have sobriety centers established along with other cities and counties nationwide.


County Judge Sam Biscoe urged the effort to continue, citing past efforts to open a sobriety center that ended unsuccessfully.


“Each time, though, we had momentum moving in the right direction and when it came to finding a site for the facility is when we actually ran into problems,” said Biscoe, “as well as money to acquire the site, plus operate it. Unfortunately those two big issues have not gone away.”


Funding a facility was on several commissioners’ minds.


“It’s really going to be a tight, tight budget year,” said Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis, “There are some things that are being asked for that I don’t believe we’ll be able to entertain even though there’s urgency to some of them.”


The cost to run the facility is estimated to be about $1 million a year.

Last year 3,754 people were booked into the Travis County Jail on public intoxication charges at a cost of $97 a day. Austin police primarily book those charged. Defendants spend time in the county jail, usually requiring an attorney provided at county expense, along with any hospital charges that might be incurred treating them.


Travis County Court-at-Law No. 5 Judge Nancy Hohengarten, who is helping to spearhead the project for the city and county, said the benefits outweigh the costs.


“Millions were spent in San Antonio and millions were saved,” said Judge Hohengarten after the vote. “They were saving more through the sobriety center than the traditional method. Some savings are hard to quantify, like police time and keeping drunk drivers from driving home. How do you quantify some of those things? “


Austin City Council Members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley spoke to the court in support of the sobriety center.


“We’ll be looking at the exact same issues you raised,” said Riley. “By looking carefully at what other cities and counties have done, we will be able to figure this out in a way that enables the city and the county to work together to deal with intoxication offenses that is not only more effective, more humane, but also less costly to the tax payer.”


“It’s a mental health issue,” said Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “We all know you can take on mental health in a lot of instances, you just have to have a big budget. Government is pretty good about band-aiding things, but whenever it comes time to really appropriating enough money to really bring people along, sometimes it’s a real hard sell to the public.”


The second hurdle for the center is location.


“It’s going to be important that the business community be involved in this,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd, “Obviously, location is going to be a concern and they’re going to want to be involved.”


“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” said Daugherty. “Everybody wants something done about this particular part of society, but we don’t want them anywhere near me. That is difficult, because I doubt there is any place that we could go in this community that they would be open-armed and say ‘That’s just great.’”


The next step for the sobriety center will be a similar resolution on the City Council agenda. If that gets passed, city management staff will be directed to come back with a report on funding needs and location recommendations on or before Sept. 1.

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