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County testimony to be neutral on boys ranch bill

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at 8:27 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, June 26, 2014, at 6:24 a.m.

The chairman of the Sedgwick County Commission told area lawmakers thanks but no thanks Tuesday for their efforts to keep the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch open, saying that a “perceived public fight between the legislators and Sedgwick County is not helpful.”

Chairman Dave Unruh told five lawmakers in an e-mail that the county would send written neutral testimony to a hearing Thursday about a bill to create a new category of youth residential center for juvenile offenders, a youth residential center III.

Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, has pushed HB2540 as a long-term solution to keep the county’s ranch for troubled boys open. It now is categorized by the state as a youth residential center II, the same type of center that houses children in the Department of Children and Families in terms of funding and regulation. The bill also would mandate a cost study to determine how much money the centers require per resident and whether high-risk offenders need more funds than low-risk residents.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau, who supports keeping the ranch open, said Tuesday he plans to testify in person in favor of the bill Thursday.

But Unruh and Commissioners Tim Norton and Jim Skelton said they are taking a neutral view because the bill has too many unknowns at this time to support it.

“The solution of this lies without legislative action and with the secretary of Corrections,” Unruh told The Eagle after a county staff meeting at which the bill was discussed Tuesday.

Hours later, he sent Howell and four other lawmakers an e-mail that read in part: “We discussed that the responsibility of juvenile corrections falls with the Secretary of Corrections and that we believe that he is best suited to determine the future of the youth offender system. We appreciate the past funding and support and your continued efforts to make a difference, but this perceived public fight between the legislators and Sedgwick County is not helpful.

“We believe the Secretary and his staff should be charged with determining the continuum of juvenile corrections across the state, as it makes sense for all young people. We have always been supportive of using evidence-based practices and performance measures, and we are pleased that Sedgwick County’s juvenile corrections in the prevention stage has helped to reduce the number of out-of-home placements (and ultimately provide a cost-saving for the State).”

When Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts met with county officials in December, he questioned the amount of money spent on staffing at the ranch and said the state has a surplus of beds for the type of juvenile offenders who stay at the ranch.

Howell said he was both offended and disappointed by the county’s response.

“Do they just want a big pile of money with no accountability? That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’m disappointed that they don’t recognize the effort we’re going through in the Legislature to get all the pieces we’re asking for.”

The boys ranch has been in jeopardy since 2012, when County Manager William Buchanan recommended closing it if the county could not get more funding from the state.

At the time, the state paid the county $126 a day per boy; the county said its cost was more than $200 a day per boy. Last year, the county asked the state for $1.5 million to help fund the ranch, and the state gave the county a one-time grant of $750,000.

The county has committed to keeping the ranch open through the end of the state’s fiscal year, which is June 30. But Howell and other state leaders say they were under the impression the county would use the grant to keep the ranch open through the end of this calendar year.

The county has reduced some of its costs at the ranch by switching to 12-hour shifts.

But the county says employees are quitting because they are concerned about the ranch’s future. Commissioners recently approved incentive bonuses to keep skilled and experienced workers at the ranch.

That move caught Howell off guard, he said. Buchanan estimated that the county could spend as much as $190,000 on the bonuses. Howell said it’s difficult to argue in Topeka that the county needs more money if it can afford staff bonuses. He said that money should be used to keep the ranch open, which he says would reassure staff members without having to issue bonuses.

Howell, who is running for the District 5 seat on the county commission now held by Skelton, replied to Unruh by e-mail, saying he viewed the bill as a long-term solution providing a “proper level of funding and stability” for the ranch. He asked the commission to support the bill and speak in favor of it Thursday.

“I urge you to reconsider the county position and partner with me and other legislators for these solutions,” Howell wrote. “We only have a short time to make a difference. This is the best opportunity we will have to work together on a real solution this session. The reason this bill exists at all is that the Sedgwick County Commissioners requested that we find a long-term solution. Legislation is not easy but it would be easier if the county supported our efforts when the opportunities presented themselves.”

Commissioners have expressed concern about some points Howell made in a Feb. 6 letter to them. He urged the county to look for ways to cut costs at the ranch and offered two suggestions: discontinuing a horse program and no longer paying residents for work. Skelton said Tuesday that the horse program teaches the boys to care about something other than themselves and that paying them for chores helps them see the value of a job.

Norton said the ranch has been successful because it offers programming beyond what other residential centers do.

“We’ve already started watering it down,” he said. “If we’re going to water it down to a typical (youth residential center II), I’m not against closing it. It’s not going to be what we’ve always had and what the community supported. I’m just afraid that we’re going to have to make a very tough decision.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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