Mayor calls on Marion County, Salem Health to help pay for proposed sobering center

Mayor Chuck Bennett in September at the ribbon cutting of the Career and Technical Education Center. Bennett on Friday called on Salem Health and Marion County to help the city pay for a sobering center to treat severely intoxicated people. (Salem Reporter files)

A ballooning budget for a sobering center downtown has prompted Mayor Chuck Bennett to call on Salem Health and Marion County for funding help.

The center, pitched as a clinic for drunk or intoxicated people who would otherwise be jailed or taken to the emergency room, could cost $950,000 to run in its first year, an estimate up nearly $300,000 from its last budget.

City officials revealed the forecast Thursday in a staff report for the Salem City Council’s annual policy setting agenda Wednesday. The latest forecast came to the city from Bridgeway Recovery Services, the organization that would run the center.

Because Salem has pledged $250,000 to pay staff and run the center, Bennett said the added costs should prompt more involvement from Salem Health and Marion County, which have previously offered $100,000.

“That’s a high number,” Bennett said of the new projection. “It’s not one that the city can shoulder alone. This is a very high priority and we’re going to do this thing, but there are other interests here that need to look at their level of participation, such as the hospital and the county, who are the biggest beneficiaries of the sobering center.”

The subsequent years aren’t likely to be much cheaper than the first, said Tim Murphy, Bridgeway’s CEO. There are startup costs like new equipment, but he said most of the cost is for workers. The center calls for around-the-clock staffing by at least two people seven days a week.

 The budget is in line with other sobering centers, Murphy said. He pointed to one in Santa Cruz, Calif., that costs more than $1 million annually.

“I’ve been clear from the beginning that we will operate it. We’re not going to make money from this — we’re a nonprofit organization — but the costs need to be covered, that’s all,” said Murphy, who founded Bridgeway in 2008.

But the source of the increased costs from the preliminary budget is unclear. Murphy couldn’t specify and city spokeswoman Courtney Knox-Busch didn’t respond last week to questions.

City Manager Steve Powers said in an email that the city “continues to work with Salem Health, Marion County, and other agencies interested in starting a sobering center.”

“A sobering center was one of the top recommendations from the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Task Force. We continue to work on closing the operating gap with final budget impacts to be considered in the context of the city’s budget needs through the City Manager’s FY 2020 Proposed Budget,” Powers said.

According to Bennett, the concept of the sobering center was floated around the city for a couple of years. It would treat highly intoxicated person who might otherwise be jailed or taken to the hospital and thus free up jail beds or medical staff.

Sobering centers differ from detox clinics in that people can’t check themselves into the center, but are taken there by police, Murphy said. There would be 10 beds for people for up to 24 hours who would be observed by staff until they are sober.

“What we’re hoping to do is convince people when they are less intoxicated that their best bet would be to go to detox,” Murphy said. “If we can get them into treatment, we know it’s going to improve the quality of the individual’s life and take some of the discomfort of the community down a notch or two.”

Murphy added he agreed with Bennett that Marion County and Salem Health should help meet the costs, but said others could help too.

Trevor Phillips, an emergency room doctor at Salem Health, served on Salem’s Downtown Homeless Solutions Task Force and has been vocal that the center would help doctors focus on other patients.

“If somebody has a severe level of intoxication, but they’re not actually needing admission to the hospital, we just need someone to keep an eye on them,” he said. “Something like a sobering center could provide us, or a lot of other services, with another resource or tool.”

The center is half of a larger project to help the city’s homeless. It would be built at The ARCHES Project, across the street from Marion Square Park, connected to an expanded day center with showers, laundry and more. Construction is estimated at $1.4 million — separate from the operating cost that would be paid to Bridgeway.

Salem Health officials said Friday that the hospital planned to stay involved. They didn’t answer whether they would pay more to cover the revised budget.

“We know that the center will be a valuable asset for the health of our community,” said Leilani Slama, a Salem Health executive, in an email. “We’ve been partnering closely with city of Salem and Marion County for over a year on this important project, and we will continue to do so.”

Marion County officials didn’t respond to a request for comments.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.