Local Government Story

Austin-Travis County Sobriety Center

By Chealsea Hunt, J310F

Posted Nov. 6, 2015

As of Oct. 20, both the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners have voted unanimously in favor of a sobriety center which will be an economically responsible approach towards make the community safer.

Since 2002, Mayor Pro Tem and city council woman Kathie Tovo has been a key member of the Sobriety Center Planning Committee, responsible for research and garnering approval towards the center’s creation.

According to this committee, the sobriety center will be a place to generally improve public health and safety by establishing an alternative to the emergency room and jail for publicly intoxicated people.

A study by the Texas Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System states that in 2006, excessive drinking cost the U.S. $223.5 billion. The same study concluded that “the prevalence of binge drinking among Austin adults has been consistently and notably higher than Texas and US binge drinking averages. This fact contributed to Austin being named the 5th drunkest city in the nation in 2012.”

This study was cited by Tovo and her committee in an Implementation Report to exemplify Austin’s need for a sobriety center.

This report states that the sobriety center will cost an estimated $1.3 million in annual operations, including salary for its 27 full time employees. These funds could be provided by the city, by profit or non-profit organizations, through grants, or by some combination of the aforementioned.

Funding options are still being discussed by government officials, though Mayor Steve Adler confirmed during the Oct. 8 city council meeting that $100,000 has been budgeted for the process of planning the center. Further expenses will need to be provided by the city or raised through various grants once the center is operational.

Regardless of costs yet to be fully determined, Kathie Tovo said the center has potential to ultimately save on city expenses.

“Sobriety centers have been shown not only to be effective in improving public safety, but they can also save the community money with regard to police incarceration costs,” Tovo said.

According to Ashley Ochoa, executive assistant for the Houston Recovery Center, it can take up to two hours for an officer to arrest somebody. Additional time and money must then be spent on court proceedings.

In contrast, Ochoa said it takes an average of seven minutes for an officer to bring an individual to the center for help, and there are no court costs involved.

“People who would normally be going to jail or cycling through the ER, we can give them an alternative,” said Ochoa. “We don’t want to focus on the problem of addiction, but rather the solution of recovery.”

Local man Bradley Costas says he’s looking forward to Austin embracing the methods currently implemented in Houston.

“My girlfriend and I had to call the cops yesterday to break up a couple of drunks fighting in our neighborhood,” Costas said. “It would be good to know they were getting help, and not just being punished. If we don’t address the actual problem, they’ll just go to jail and be right back at it when they get out.”

According to Kathie Tovo, the sobriety center is still in its most preliminary stages. “Over the next year,” she said, “we will be focusing on planning and identifying funding opportunities. Should all go according to plan, we hope to begin operations as early as 2017.”

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