WICHITA — Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton told colleagues Tuesday that he is “100 percent in favor” of saving the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, which the county is considering closing for financial reasons.
Skelton said the county needs to find some way to keep the ranch, which serves male juvenile offenders aged 14 to 20, included in next year’s budget.
The boys ranch is the most expensive of juvenile corrections programs, Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan told commissioners at their staff meeting.
Buchanan stressed three times, in a deliberate voice, that the ranch is a state program. The state gives the county $126 a day per boy, but the total cost to serve an offender each day is $204, Buchanan said. The state’s reimbursement to the county has not changed since 2007 and is based on 2006 costs, he said.
The state has provided "insufficient funds, as they have in other programs, to cover our costs," Buchanan said.
Buchanan called the boys ranch a “model program.” But he also said closing it would not affect a high number of people.
“These are clearly some difficult choices we have about very important programs,” Buchanan stressed.
Closing the ranch would save the county $1.5 million to $1.9 million next year, he said. The ranch also is in disrepair, and replacing it would cost about $14.7 million.
Five Sedgwick County District Court judges, those who preside in juvenile cases, recently wrote to commissioners urging them to keep the ranch open.
“It proves times are tough when a program like Judge Riddel Boys Ranch is facing possible closure,” Judges James Burgess, Dan Brooks, Harold Flaigle, Timothy Henderson and Eric Yost wrote.
They said that “it is fairly certain that closing (the ranch) will result in some immediate costs,” they said.
Offenders would be sent to other facilities “that do not have the expertise or the programming” to handle them.
“The result will be more failed placements,” the judges wrote and higher recidivism, or re-offending.
“The ultimate result is the fact that without effective intervention, many of these offenders will graduate to the adult criminal system,” they said in the letter.
Commissioners say they want to keep the ranch open but are dealing with a tight budget and falling revenue.
“I’ve always felt it was a great program, that it has value,” board chairman Tim Norton said after the meeting. “It saves young people. It keeps them out of the adult residential system. In my heart of hearts, I’d like to keep it open. But it is a costly program. When it comes to actually looking at all the things we have to look at in this budget, you look for things that save big chunks of money, and that is one of them.”
Norton said there may be a less costly way to operate the ranch.
“I’ll be sad” if it closes, he said.
Commissioner Dave Unruh said that on an emotional level, he wouldn’t vote to close the ranch. As a commissioner, however, charged with spending taxpayer money, he might have to make a “difficult decision.”
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he wants to look at administrative changes that may reduce costs at the ranch and allow it to remain open. He questioned, for example, the number of staff that have to be on the premises while the boys are sleeping.
“I want to look at all the options,” Peterjohn said.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau said he still is gathering information about the impact closing the ranch would have.
State Sen. Dick Kelsey attended the staff meeting and said he would work for adequate funding for the ranch.
Kelsey helped organize a public forum last week about the ranch.
Buchanan told commissioners Tuesday that the state seemed interested only in a public forum, not in a conversation about a solution.