Wednesday, October 14, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Sobriety center plans advance through the county

Travis County Commissioners have taken another big step toward the creation of a sobriety center that would serve as an alternative to jail for the region’s most temerarious tipplers.

During their regular voting session on Tuesday, the commissioners directed the Facilities Management Division to estimate the cost of converting the existing Medical Examiner’s building at 1213 Sabine St. into what is colloquially referred to as a drunk tank.

The vote fell short of unanimity with Commissioner Ron Davis’ lone abstention.

The Commissioners Court’s action comes on the heels of Austin City Council’s own decision last Thursday to approve recommendations presented by a special committee that features members of both bodies.

Among those recommendations was the proposal to house the sobriety center inside the ME’s building, which will become vacant in early 2017 when the Medical Examiner’s Office relocates to a new facility in Northeast Austin.

Recent appraisals of the building’s utility as a holding tank for the dangerously intoxicated have highlighted not just the advantage of its downtown location but also the convenience of its existing floor drains. Part of the building could also be turned into an Austin Police substation, thus providing an on-site law enforcement presence in addition to medical staff and other personnel who would operate the center.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who sits – along with Commissioner Margaret Gómez – on the interlocal committee that is exploring the sobriety center praised the plans so far but raised concerns about public perception. He said, “All you’ve got to do is listen to talk radio and watch people just get crazy (and ask), ‘What are you doing with tax dollars? Are you just going to take tax dollars, and are you just going to take people that are drunk and take care of them?’”

Daugherty indicated that the program’s costs could be offset by savings and other public benefits. For example, he noted that under the current system, many people who are publicly intoxicated are taken through the expensive process of the county’s central booking facility. In extreme cases, officers may decide to bring them to an emergency room, a trip that also ends up on the county’s tab, Daugherty said.

However, Daugherty added that those savings won’t add up to make the center cost-neutral and that the biggest uncertainty that could still derail the proposal is the funding mechanism. He mentioned a recent radio interview in which he suggested that the bulk of the money should come from those who end up using the center.

“I said on the air, ‘I want your credit card. If you just drank $150 worth of booze on a credit card, well, I’m happy to get your credit card and swipe it and charge you whatever the amount is.’”

Commissioner Brigid Shea echoed Daugherty’s concerns but offered her own proposed solution. She explained that county revenues have spiked recently thanks to a newly imposed state tax on alcohol sales. Her suggestion to use some of that money to pay for the sobriety center won effusive praise from Daugherty, who conceded that “not everyone is going to have a credit card that I could take a hold of.”

For her part, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt pointed out that the sobriety center would serve a more robust purpose than as a temporary holding tank for drunks to sleep it off. “This would divert people who are seriously intoxicated out of the jail and emergency room and divert them into a setting to provide them the physical and mental care they need,” Eckhardt said.

At that point, she began to initiate the vote but was interrupted by Commissioner Davis, who brought up significant deed restrictions on the land. According to county staff, the county would forfeit the land to the city of Austin if it tried to use it for any purpose not approved by the city.

“And, see, that is a very, very, very, very, very high-dollar piece of property,” Davis told his colleagues. “And the reason that is that high: It has no Capitol view limitations.” Given that, Davis explained, it seemed too dangerous to him to let Travis County lose interest in the land.

On Tuesday evening, however, Sylvia Arzola, spokeswoman for the city’s Development Services Department, told the Austin Monitor that the site is in fact subject to a Capitol View Corridor. She was unable to indicate exactly how restrictive the overlay is in that section of downtown.

After Davis aired his concerns, the court voted to request the cost estimate of converting the building and to explore possible revenue streams.

Photo by Oregon Department of Transportation (Busted!Uploaded by Smallman12q) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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