South metro residents are a step closer to getting locally based inpatient mental health care as plans for a treatment center in downtown Savage advance.

The Savage City Council this week unanimously approved preliminary plans for a $5.5 million facility called Savage Intensive Residential Treatment Services. The center will be designed to treat adults with mental illness for up to 90 days and provide crisis care for up to 10 days.

The shortage of places in Scott, Carver and Dakota counties for people to get help with mental illness has been an issue for years. Health professionals, law enforcement officers and families note that people in crisis often must be transported outstate for a bed.

From 2012 to 2016, Scott County saw a 76% increase in the need for intensive residential treatment services and a 96% increase in crisis care, said Pam Selvig, Scott County Health and Human Services director. She said there is just one intensive residential treatment facility in the three-county area and only about 40 in all of Minnesota.

Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said that when patients are taken to places like Duluth or Fargo for treatment, his staff has to retrieve them for court appearances back in the county. The pickups occur early in the morning, he said, and are a "very unproductive" use of their time.

"Sixteen additional beds in the metro here will make a big difference," Hennen said, "but it won't solve the problem."

Savage Mayor Janet Williams has championed the facility, sharing her son's experience with schizophrenia as a way of underscoring the need for it. Plans to locate the center in Savage took shape several years ago.

"They zeroed in on Savage because we met the criteria — it had to be close to transit, it had to be close to jobs," she said.

The city sold the downtown parcel targeted for the treatment center to the Scott County Community Development Agency for $1. The agency will own the building while Guild Inc., a nonprofit that operates a similar facility in South St. Paul, will run the center.

The 16,000-square-foot, 16-bed center will be funded with $1.9 million from the Legislature and a $2.26 million state grant. Dakota County and Allina Health also will chip in to help cover the cost.

"Granted, it is going to be an expensive facility, but the reason for that is it's being built specifically for what it's going to be used for," Williams said, adding that other treatment centers often are located in converted houses.

Several people spoke in favor of the center at a Planning Commission meeting.

"I think a lot of the concerns people have about people with mental illness are based upon what they see on TV," said Kim Churchill, a psychiatric social worker. "Most people with mental illness look like me."

Others voiced concern. Nile Plapp, commander at American Legion Post 643 in Savage, said he objects to the fact that the facility would be about 20 yards from the Legion.

"It seems interesting to me that someone in a crisis … some of it caused by alcohol, would be in a position where within two blocks you've got five places that serve alcohol," he said. He added that he's worried the Legion might have to halt late-night events because patients would be bothered by the lights and loud music.

Williams responded that she believes any future issues with the Legion can be resolved. "We … feel this facility might be helpful to some of the [Legion] members," she said.

Savage resident Gary Skarhus said he feared that a sex offender living at the treatment center would endanger nearby children, but a Guild Inc. representative said its focus is not on treating sex offenders.

At Monday's City Council meeting, former city administrator Barry Stock said he hopes the facility will be a prototype for others in the state and across the country. He said that many societal problems are due to "poor treatment" of mentally ill individuals.

"Not only poor treatment, it's no treatment," Williams chimed in.