Potential sobriety center site raises questions from Travis County Commissioners

The office of the Travis County Medical Examiner, located in Central Austin, is among potential sites being considered for a joint Austin-Travis County sobriety center.

The office of the Travis County Medical Examiner, located in Central Austin, is among potential sites being considered for a joint Austin-Travis County sobriety center.

The site being considered for a joint city and county sobriety center—the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office located at 1213 Sabine St. in Austin—was a topic of discussion during the Travis County Commissioners Court's March 1 meeting.

The building is scheduled to be vacated in summer 2017, and the county may look to occupy it by fall 2017, said Roger Jefferies, Justice & Public Safety County Executive.

The center would target people arrested for public intoxication, and in 2015 about 26 individuals met that criteria, 75 percent of whom were from Travis County, Jefferies said.

“The sobriety center would be a safe place for someone arrested for public intoxication to sober up," he said, adding on-site medical screenings would be provided.

Commissioners did not take a vote at the March 1 meeting but discussed several considerations surrounding the potential site and plans for the center's development. The county owns the Medical Examiner building and the land, but the city must approve of the use of the property, according to county staff. The county is currently in negotiations on an interlocal agreement with the city, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said.

The estimated annual cost of the facility, which would have between 30 and 40 beds, is $1.5 million, Jefferies said. The county estimates that there are more than $3.5 million in costs associated with public intoxication, he said.

“We will be avoiding significant costs in jail by diverting this population into a more appropriate treatment center,” Eckhardt said.

Commissioner Ron Davis, who is not seeking re-election to court once his term ends in November 2016, said he thinks the medical examiner’s office property is too valuable to use for the center.

“I have not agreed on the creation of the sobriety center, and when it comes back for a vote I’m going to vote no again,” he said.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who is seeking re-election to the Precinct 3 commissioners court seat, said the sobriety center conversation is beginning to remind him of issues related to the civil and family courthouse bond the county proposed in May, which voters rejected.

“We marched down a pathway thinking that, quite frankly, we weren’t going to have any problem with the location,” he said, noting voters' concerns regarding the proposed downtown location for a new courthouse was a major factor in the outcome of the election. He said the court has not confirmed that there is “buy-in” on the location from major medical organizations in the area, local businesses and groups such as the Waller Creek Conservancy.

Ashton Cumberbatch, vice president of advocacy and community relations with Seton Healthcare Family, said Seton wants to continue to participate in discussions about pros and cons of the medical examiner’s office as a location.

“We have been involved in the conversations since the beginning,” he said.

Major construction will take place in the coming years in the area surrounding the Medical Examiner's Office building, Daugherty added, and funding has not been secured yet.

“We need to be real honest—[the sobriety center] may be something that is going to be mostly paid for out of [residents’] taxes,” he said.

Commissioner Brigid Shea noted she has suggested that staff consider increasing revenues the city and county are receiving from liquor taxes as a potential funding source.

Eckhardt noted the court will receive an update from Central Health on April 14 outlining the “state of the health care district,” including plans for the redevelopment of the old Brackenridge hospital and an update from staff on its Coordinated Care Collaborative.
By Kelli Weldon
Kelli joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter and has been covering Southwest Austin news since July 2012. She was promoted to editor of the Southwest Austin edition in April 2015. In addition to covering local businesses, neighborhood development, events, transportation and education, she is also the beat reporter covering the Travis County Commissioners Court.


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