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Knox County Commission Approves Safety Center Contract 10-1

Knox County Commission approved two resolutions on Monday to help bring about a diversion facility – also called a safety center – for people with mental illness or substance abuse issues who would otherwise end up in jail.

The pair of resolutions were approved 10-1 each, with Commissioner Randy Smith opposing.

Smith represents the district in Northwest Knoxville where the facility would go.

"I want to make it perfectly clear that the people of this community aren't opposed to helping," Smith said. "I don't think they're as concerned about the safety as they are the expansion – the rapid expansion – of those services in the area."

The Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center would be at 3343 Dewine Road. The plan is for a 72-hour treatment facility for people with mental health issues or addiction problems who would otherwise go to jail for low-level offenses.

Commission approved a 20-year, $1.2 million lease agreement; and a three-year contract with the Helen Ross McNabb Center to operate the place – with an option to renew for additional 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 renovations, pending a contract between the parties.

Before the votes, commission heard comments from opponents and supporters of the 16-bed facility that could treat more than 3,000 people per year.

Neighbors portrayed it as a potential nuisance near a residential community that should go elsewhere than in their backyards.

Backers said that it would provide important treatment for people who do not receive the care they need in a jail.

"People are being admitted under the threat of incarceration," nearby resident John Zimmerman said. "How can a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol be expected to make a rash decision?"

Opponents further asked the county and the McNabb Center to find another place for the diversion center. They asked that the contract be more strict to not allow violent offenders to be accepted, and worried that people with even nonviolent offenses would be in their neighborhood.

Commissioner Carson Dailey admonished people who took issue with the location.

"'Not in my backyard,' like what I've been hearing – what a shame," Dailey said. "I've been talked to (like) I'm not a good citizen. ... I'm going to be a good commissioner for everybody."

Meanwhile, supporters said that the place would treat people who need help that they haven't gotten.

"You will be raising and restoring the lives of those who are treated as the least of us," said Vivian Shipe, who was a citizen representative on a safety center task force.

The people there are "people who wander lost, under bridges and in and out of jail," Shipe said. "People whose illness does not allow them to know they are ill."

On Tuesday, Knoxville City Council is expected to review a resolution allowing Mayor Madeline Rogero to work on a contract between the city, county and the Helen Ross McNabb Center. Council under the agreement would allocate $400,000 a year for three years and give a one-time contribution of $200,000 to renovate the proposed facility.

A use-on-review that Council approved has been appealed and is expected to go before the city again in April.

The state is expected to give $1.5 million for each of the next two years, according to officials, though that is contingent on a gas tax being approved at the state level.

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