The Knox County Commission is again revisiting plans to develop a safety center that houses and treats the mentally ill who are arrested for nonviolent crimes, and this time local leaders say they expect something to get done.
For years, officials have engaged in on-again-off-again talks to build such a facility, but proposals often have fallen through because of funding.
However, a handful of commissioners and several representatives from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office plan to hold a short public meeting on Friday to iron out some of the details. Then on Feb. 16, the full commission will talk more during a special meeting.
A week later – and during its regular monthly voting meeting on Feb. 22 – the board is expected to start the bidding process to determine who could operate such a facility.
“This is something that the commission wants to do but we need to get this right,” Commissioner Randy Smith said. “We only get one shot. If we throw something together and it falls on its face and fails, then we will lose the trust of the public. “
County leaders have long talked about building a facility to combat jail overcrowding at the Maloneyville Road detention center, and help those with mental health issues get the care they need. But, commissioners say they need the county, state and city to each chip in $1 million to get the operation up and running.
The county set aside its share several years, but the state and city have often hesitated to commit.
The county years ago even accepted bids to build and operate a center but only Helen Ross McNabb submitted a proposal. No action was taken regarding that submission.
Officials, however, say it will be different this time around.
“I would be shocked if we don’t move forward on this,” commission Vice Chairman Bob Thomas said. “I have stressed to everyone that we need to get it done and I think everyone agrees. I feel confident that in the coming 12 months we’re going to move forward.”
Officials also have long argued that the ever increasing prices and need for prescription drugs at the county jail are getting out of control. The county each year budgets more than $500,000 to cover the costs.
They say the mentally ill should be treated rather than locked up.
“Look at all the money we’re spending running people out to Maloneyville Road,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to get this under control. It’s like a wild animal we can’t get in the cage in terms of the expenses.”
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, who initially set aside $1 million to build the facility, agreed.
“The mentally ill shouldn’t be in a normal jail,” he said. “We can do better than that. Shame on us if we don’t. But where do we go from there? We have to figure out what it’s going to cost and what we’re going to do about it.”
Past plans have suggested that the center would treat offenders who voluntarily stay for up to three days, and could serve about 4,000 people a year. Officials say the facility would cost about $2 million to build and then another $1.7 million annually to operate.
Officials have talked about putting it behind the McNabb Center on Springdale Avenue in North Knoxville or on Ball Camp Pike.
“The agency is ready to serve this need in the community and we’ve been championing this effort over the last few years,” said Emily Scheuneman, spokeswoman for Helen Ross McNabb. “We would be happy to work to meet this need.”