BLOOMINGTON — The notion that McLean County should construct a mental health unit apart from the existing jail does not make sense from a fiscal or safety point o f view, county officials said Tuesday.

Sheriff Mike Emery criticized the suggestion Tuesday in response to media questions about comments made last week by retired sheriff’s department investigator Jeff Elston, who is running as a candidate for sheriff.  

“Our immediate need is to focus on what we have available within our existing structure. If you build a structure, you need to hire at least 24 people to staff it. You’re talking millions of dollars in operational expense,” said Emery, adding that current staff could be assigned to a unit within the facility.

Elston said Tuesday staffing for a mental health unit will increase no matter where it is, but a facility apart from the jail would allow safer and easier access for civilians treating the mentally ill inmates. It also would make it easier to keep the mentally ill and general inmate populations separate and secure, which would reduce stress on them and the staff and liability concerns, he said.

“Keeping them separate is the wise choice,” Elston said. “If you are going to do this, let’s do it right.”

 McLean County Board Chairman Matt Sorensen also expressed doubts Tuesday about a building apart from the jail to house inmates with mental illness.

“The concern I would have about a stand alone building is some duplication of staff,” said Sorensen.

The issue of public safety also must be addressed, said the board chairman.

“You can’t physically get from one place to the other fast enough if something happens,” Sorensen said.

The county will have several options to consider for the proposed mental health unit after a team of experts from the National Institute on Corrections complete a site visit in July and issues its report.

Roger Miller contributed to this report.

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