By Mike Steely
Recently The Knoxville Focus asked more than three dozen elected officials and office seekers what their main goal or concern is for 2016. Various elected officials responded to the question.
The Safety Center
The most popular reply was the need for a Knox County-Knoxville Safety Center. A Safety Center could relieve the County Jail of about 25% of those being held there, the percentage of the jail’s population considered to be mentally ill.
When you also factor in the number of homeless that are mentally ill, said to be about 50%, and the number of those homeless who end up in jail, the cost to the city and county is huge. Sheriff J.J. Jones estimated the cost of psychotropic drugs alone each year is better than $350,000.
Many of the prisoners judged to be mentally ill could be moved to a new Safety Center, relieving some of the overcrowding at the jail.
But the idea of a Safety Center has been talked about for years. County Mayor Tim Burchett has pledged $1 million toward building the facility and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero has voiced support for the facility. Sheriff J.J. Jones hired former District Attorney General Randy Nichols to push a Safety Center. Nichols has recently said to expect some movement on the issue soon. The sheriff has described the county jails as “the largest mental health facility in the state.”
The state has promised some funds toward the operation of a facility and it has been proposed that the Helen Ross McNabb Center operate it.
“The proposed safety center is a step in the right direction to help chronically incarcerated people to break the ongoing cycle of being arrested and returned to the streets. It won’t be easy or cheap, but it is a solid investment in our city and our people,” replied City Councilman Mark Campen.
His concern for a Safety Center was reflected by several other officials.
“I really think that the Safety Center will be top of minds,” said County Commissioner Ed Brantley.
“The biggest issue facing Knox County right now is mental illness and building a Safety Center,” said Commissioner Jeff Ownby. He added, “Since the closure of Lakeshore our mentally ill end up on our streets or in our jails. The state needs to keep their promise and help fund the Safety Center. I am optimistic that the funding will come through this year.”
“My main concern for 2016 is that we get the players together and get the justice center up and running — it should be the top priority,” responded Commissioner Mike Brown.
Support for a Safety Center is also coming from the Knox County Public Defender’s office which is “strongly supporting” the idea.
The nationwide problem of crime and police response was also brought up by local officials.
“We must address the senseless violence. Perhaps Save Our Sons, Daryl Arnold and other ministers and some youth leadership, schools and the police will find some way to better engage young men of color and find more positive outcomes for the entire community. Much of this is happening now and we must all be engaged,” replied Councilman At Large Finbarr Sanders.
Councilman Mark Campen wrote, “Recent gun violence deaths, assaults, thefts and more are directly related to gang activity and drug addiction. These are not problems that are the Knoxville Police Department’s sole responsibility to deal with. We all must work in our neighborhoods, within our associations and crime watch groups to keep our eyes and ears open.”
Knoxville’s Coliseum and Auditorium is being looked at by the city and one study suggested tearing it down and starting from scratch. The city is looking at three options: minor renovations, major renovations, and totally replacing it.
Several elected officials mentioned the Coliseum in their replies to The Focus question.
Fourth District Councilman Nick Della Volpe responded, “Keep the improvements and replacements of the Auditorium and Coliseum features at the existing location which has parking and access to the interstate and major roads already in place.”
Councilman Nick Pavlis replied, “Make sure we thoroughly vet the future of the Civil Coliseum.”
“The Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum redevelopment is certainly an opportunity and a challenge which may encompass surrounding properties. We are seeking public input as this process unfolds,” responded Councilman Finbarr Saunders.
Knoxville’s Third District Council member Brenda Palmer sited fashioning a plan for the Civic Coliseum/Auditorium to maximize use and return on investment.