Frustrated by the lack of secure psychiatric beds in the metro area, the Hennepin County Board voted Tuesday to move forward on a plan to build its own mental health facility.

The board unanimously approved $200,000 to study the feasibility of converting an abandoned building at the workhouse in Plymouth. The short-term facility would house residents or inmates who couldn't find a secure bed at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, are ready to leave the county jail or are temporarily at Hennepin Healthcare.

It's unclear how many beds will be available at the new "mental health stabilization center," but the board earmarked nearly $13 million for the project. They hope the study will be completed by October.

"The mental health system is jammed up, and this is the county stepping up to deal with a chronic problem," said Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. "We are not offering proper treatment, and it's costing the county significant dollars."

County staff has had "friction" working with the state's Department of Human Services to improve the system and capacity issues at Anoka, but there hasn't been decline in patient numbers, said Commissioner Mike Opat. Right now, inmates at the county jail are staying longer than their sentence time waiting for a bed at Anoka. People placed at Hennepin Healthcare pose risks to themselves and staff because the hospital wasn't meant to be a secure mental health facility, he said.

The board cited a recent case of a man with mental illness who was held in jail for three months even though misdemeanor charges against him were quickly dropped after his arrest.

Plans for a new facility have been discussed by the board for more than a year. The study will focus on the former work release building at the workhouse, which has been shuttered for 10 years. The building used to house 165 inmates.

A large portion of the estimated budget will go to updating plumbing, heating and air conditioning equipment, said County Administrator David Hough.

The major beneficiary of a new facility will be the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail. As many as a quarter of the inmates in county jails across Minnesota suffer from a diagnosed mental illness — hundreds of people on any given day. The state passed a law in 2013 giving jail inmates priority for admission into state psychiatric facilities.

Sheriff Rich Stanek said his office pitched a secure facility at the workhouse as part of a five-point comprehensive plan two years ago to help those suffering from mental illness. It's taken some time to work the plan through, but he said he's glad the board is now proceeding.

If the new facility is larger than 16 beds, which is expected, it has to be operated with a hospital, said Opat. The county also has to be sure the state doesn't stop allowing the county to send patients to the more secure psychiatric hospital in St. Peter, he said.

Besides the possibility of a new mental health facility, the county is working with community organizations and Hennepin Healthcare on a multiyear project to create a mental health and substance abuse residential treatment program at a county-owned building at 1800 Chicago Av. S. in Minneapolis. It works as a triage center, treating the patient's immediate health needs and then working on the underlying reasons that caused the health issues.

"We are very aware of the need for this facility at the workhouse, but we have to proceed very carefully," said Opat. "We have to make sure we aren't simply solving the state's problem."

McLaughlin said the county now pays $1,300 a day to house a patient at Anoka. Board Chair Jan Callison said, "Let's cross our fingers and hope we are on to something" with a new facility.

"This is the start of a journey," said Opat.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465