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High and dry

As state funds leave, county might be forced to send the intoxicated back into the streets

It's 2:30 in the afternoon, and Mark Rogers is drunk.

After running from a fight in front of Medford's Rose Grocery, he stumbles onto the railroad tracks near Clark Street. Police find him there with a blood-smeared face and two cans of Keystone beer in his coat pockets.

A 46-year-old California resident visiting his father in Shady Cove, Rogers has just one option for drying out in Medford ' the Jackson County Sobering Unit.

I figured I leave him drunk and wandering around with blood on his face, we're gonna get a million calls on him, says Medford police officer Nate Banry. The only place he could have washed the blood off is in a mud puddle.

The sobering unit at Third and Front streets houses intoxicated people who can't care for themselves, 24 hours a day. But if the county can't replace a 34 percent state budget cut, the unit would most likely close between the hours of noon and 8 p.m., says Hank Collins, the county's Health and Human Services director.

The sobering unit is funded with &

36;100,000 from Jackson County's budget, &

36;82,500 from the state's budget for drug and alcohol treatment and &

36;60,000 in taxes on beer and wine sales, Collins says. Letting one detainee dry out in the unit costs about &

36;115, he adds.

Facing a budget crunch even if Measure 28 had passed, state officials are telling Collins that he can no longer spend the state drug and alcohol treatment funding on the center.

It's really not treatment, Collins says. It's just warehousing them until they sober up.

If the center cuts hours, Rogers and others who drink early in the day would have nowhere to go, leaving a city police force that aggressively targets alcohol abuse with few options.

The tolerance level is going to have to go sky-high, I guess, says Medford police Lt. Tim George. If we don't have detox for him, what do we do with him? We don't let him wander off and get in another fight.

Medford police bring in approximately 80 percent of all detainees at the sobering unit. Last year, Medford officers lodged about 1,785 people there, according to Health and Human Services statistics.

Ashland police were responsible last year for about 4 percent of the unit's detainees. State police and sheriff's deputies brought in 2.5 and — percent, respectively. Approximately — percent of those housed in the sobering unit walked in on their own, according to county statistics.

The majority of detainees are admitted between 8 p.m. and — a.m. Most are released once their blood-alcohol levels drop to about .05 percent, which usually takes eight to 10 hours, says Steve Brummett, director of the county's alcohol and drug services. If the sobering unit cuts its hours, Brummett and his staff would start turning away detainees around 2 a.m., giving them enough time to dry out before the noon closure, he says.

But Rogers is among 42 percent of detainees that Medford police lodge between noon and 8 p.m., on average. Hourly statistics show that Medford officers bring the most people in between 7 and 8 p.m. ' approximately 10 percent of last year's total lodgings.

You could call it crime prevention for the next eight to 10 hours, George says. This person in his intoxicated state ... is not going to affect any more victims or anyone else.

The jail will not take inmates simply to sober them up. They must be charged with a crime. Because police cannot make arrests for public drunkenness, taking people to the sobering unit is practically the only way to get them off the street, George says. Local homeless shelters will not house anyone who is intoxicated.

We can't let 'em get run over or die of exposure, George says.

Even with no friends or family in Medford, Rogers is assured a secure, warm place to get sober.

His blood-alcohol level is .285 percent ' more than three times the legal limit ' when he takes off his work boots spattered with drips of white paint and his own blood. His puffy blue coat goes in the washing machine and his other belongings in a purple plastic basket.

Rogers is given a gray wool blanket and a cell of his own. It's his first visit here, says Kimberly Hanson, who keeps a file on each detainee. Rogers says he's been in town for only three months.

First time out here. Last time, too, man.

City budget may add to sober reality A pot of money from the city of Medford could bail the Jackson County Sobering Unit out of a budget crisis, officials have said.

The City Council set aside &

36;50,000 three years ago to fund the detox portion of the county's sobering unit. The money was never used because the county stopped offering counseling there. Yet the funds should be reinstated to keep the sobering unit functioning 24 hours a day, said Medford City Councilman Bill Moore.

In the long run, this is the easiest intervention there is, Moore said.

Not everyone agrees.

The city is not responsible for, nor is it equipped in any way ... to pick up those types of services, said Mike Dyal, Medford city manager, adding that the city is facing a budget shortfall of its own.

When the sobering unit opened in 1991, cities whose police departments lodged detainees paid the county about &

36;50 for each admission, said Hank Collins, the county's Health and Human Services director. After a countywide public safety levy was passed several years later, the payments were stopped, he said.

Now forced with closing the sobering unit for eight hours each day if the county can't make up a shortfall of state money, county officials again are looking to the city for help.

We really want to keep people out of the jail, and out of the hospitals, said Steve Brummett, director of the county's drug and alcohol services.

But local hospitals failed to step up to the plate with matching funds in 2000, Dyal said. Medford council members only agreed to give &

36;50,000 to the county if Rogue Valley Medical Center and Providence also chipped in. Local hospitals routinely turn away intoxicated patients, sending many to the sobering unit until they can be treated.

Moore, a retired addictions counselor, said he's working to get the hospitals and the Veterans Affairs Domiciliary on board. He also said it makes sense for Medford to redirect a portion of the &

36;560,000 it gets each year from taxes on beer and wine sales.

With that kind of money coming in, some of it we owe to people who are disabled by alcohol, Moore said.

The Medford City Council most likely will discuss the issue within the next month, Dyal said.

The Jackson County Sobering Unit in Medford is losing 34 percent of its budget to cuts in state funding. Unless more money is found, the place where police house intoxicated people until they sober up will close for part of each day. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell