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County Commission to Vote on Safety Center Next Week

The safety center to divert the mentally ill and substance abuse offenders from jail has moved further along by Knox County Commission.

In Monday's work session the commission voted to place two resolutions on the agenda for next week's regular meeting.

One resolution is for a 20-year, $1.2 million lease agreement on property for the safety center at 3343 Dewine Road; the other is a three-year contract with the Helen Ross McNabb Center to operate the place — with an option to renew for the three-year terms. The McNabb Center would receive $600,000 from Knox County and $400,000 from the city each year, with an additional $200,000 from the city for building renovations.

Jerry Vagnier, CEO and president of the McNabb Center, answered multiple questions about the scope of the facility, its look and location.

Mostly, commissioners appeared concerned over where patients would be discharged after their three-day stay.

"It's a planned discharge," Vagnier said.

That means that law enforcement would bring patients there, and then take them from the facility. The plan to have inhabitants in the hands of law enforcement came after some push back from nearby residents over the facility. The facility is intended for people who would be taken to jail for a low-level misdemeanor, but need treatment instead. Vagnier and others said that law enforcement personnel would help determine who needs to go there.

People coming to the center would enter and exit through a single secure door, Vagnier said.

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones have worked to generate local support and state interest. Gov. Bill Haslam has set aside $15 million for "pre-arrest diversion infrastructure."

"It's not a place to detox drunks," Jones said.

He said that it would work to help people get the stabilization and path to long-term care.

"And if it's not that, the sheriff's office will not be involved in it," Jones said.

Commissioner Randy Smith, who represents the district where the facility is planned, had multiple questions but did not deny the need of the location.

"I’m going to make it perfectly clear to everyone ... that I fully support what they're trying to do," Smith said.

Smith said the greater community has reached a point where the facility is needed.

Commission is expected to vote on both resolutions in next week's regular meeting at 5 p.m. Monday.

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