Don’t call it a drunk tank, as city and county leaders move forward on a new sobriety center where people picked up for public intoxication can dry out instead of going to a hospital or the jail.
The Travis County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to approve an interlocal agreement with the city of Austin to create a managing entity for the center and divide its costs. The Austin City Council approved the agreement last week.
The city and county will create a local government corporation, with a nine-member board, to oversee operation of the sobriety center. It will hold 30 to 40 people, have a staff of 27 employees and provide a place for people to sober up, receive medical treatment and get referrals to support services.
Both entities are expected to appoint board members to the new corporation in August so it can begin recruiting an executive director in September. Renovations are planned for June of next year, for a summer 2017 opening.
Austin will cover more than three-quarters of the cost of operating the center, estimated at $23.3 million total over 10 years. The county’s portion will include donating use of the soon-to-be-vacated medical examiner’s building at 1213 Sabine St., renovating it for an estimated $887,500 and being responsible for its upkeep.
The city will pay $1.7 million annually once the center is complete. Officials have said the strategy will reduce costs of jail bookings and emergency room visits, but whether that will mean overall cost savings is undetermined.
Commissioner Ron Davis expressed skepticism about the plan. He questioned whether the county could get more bang for its buck from some other use of the property and whether people transported there would still be adequately punished for public drunkenness.
Staff members said police will maintain the discretion to take people to jail, the sobriety center or a hospital. There will likely be some ticketing mechanism for people dropped at the center, but how that will work is unclear.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said it’s time to try something new with regard to public intoxication. The point is to lessen the burden on jail and hospitals, he said.
“The media likes to use words that light people up, and ‘drunk tank’ is one … but this is not that,” he said.
Commissioner Brigid Shea noted that Austin routinely ranks among the drunkest cities in the nation, “but what that means as far as tax revenue is that we’re getting a lot more in alcohol sales,” she said.
The item passed 3-0 Tuesday with Davis abstaining and Commissioner Margaret Gómez absent.
The Austin City Council showed similar support Thursday with a 10-1 vote. Council Member Kathie Tovo celebrated the move to create the center as a victory for public safety and public health. Council Member Don Zimmerman opposed it, calling it “a matter of misplaced priorities” not in line with the city’s core mission.