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House panel kills Judge Riddel Boys Ranch bill

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, at 8:23 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at 1:10 p.m.

The future looks bleak for the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch.

A bill designed to provide a long-term funding solution to the cash-strapped ranch for juvenile offenders in Sedgwick County died in the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee on Tuesday.

County commissioners previously had said the ranch would close June 30 if the state did not provide more funding. Getting that short-term funding hinged on the Legislature passing the long-term solution, said Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, and Sedgwick County commissioners.

Howell, the bill’s sponsor, blamed House Bill 2540’s failure to pass on a perceived lack of commitment from county officials.

When the bill was heard two weeks ago, the commission provided neutral testimony. After Howell amended the bill to meet commissioners’ concerns, they expressed support during a staff meeting Tuesday morning. But it may have been too late to sway legislators.

“If they’re (commissioners) going to expect things to happen without their support, things designed to benefit them, I have a hard time understanding how at this point we can actually create any new initiative,” said Howell, who is running for a seat on the commission now held by Jim Skelton.

“This was really the end.”

The ranch was on the verge of being shut down last year before the state provided an additional $750,000 – half of what the county requested – to keep it open. Howell said the intent was to keep the ranch open through 2014, but the county told the state the money was enough to keep it operating only through June 30.

No solution appears in sight at this time.

“I’m afraid the future doesn’t look very strong,” said Commission Chairman Dave Unruh. “If we don’t get additional funding, we’ll have to make plans to wind it down.”

Skelton said “I don’t have a clue” what’s going to happen now with the ranch that currently serves 32 boys.

The county owns the property and facilities for the ranch – located on 63 acres west of Wichita at Lake Afton – and operates the program.

“It’s the state’s responsibility to pay for this, not the county’s,” Skelton said. “I say we should donate the building to the state and let the state run it.”

Bonus money

Mark Masterson, director of the county’s corrections department, said he was told that Howell would pursue short-term funding sources from the Appropriations Committee. But Howell said it’s unlikely that legislators will be able to pass any other funding measures for the ranch at this point in the session.

A motion on the House floor to fund the ranch in the short term was voted down this month. The corrections budget advanced by the Senate Ways and Means Committee lacks a provision some area lawmakers wanted to fund the ranch.

Supporters of the ranch have pointed out that it has a high success rate with keeping boys from returning to trouble.

The county receives a state reimbursement of $126 per boy per day, but it has told the state it needs $201 per day to cover costs.

State Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts told county commissioners in December that if he paid the additional $75, he would have to match that rate for other facilities – a price that would cost the state $10 million. He also said he had 130 beds open at facilities similar to Riddel in south-central Kansas, Unruh said.

“That told me he’s not supportive of providing more money,” Unruh said.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau, who has been a strong backer of the ranch, said the commission’s decision in January to provide $190,000 in bonuses to Riddel employees sent a conflicting message to the Legislature.

“We tell them we don’t have any money,” Ranzau said, “and then all of a sudden we have money. The county manager (William Buchanan) and the majority of the commission has been wanting to close the ranch.”

Skelton said the bonus money was necessary to retain the workers, who were being asked to work 12-hour shifts and who face an uncertain future. He said workers were quitting because of the conditions.

“We didn’t have a choice,” he said. “We had an emergency on our hands.”

Skelton noted that the state has cut $58.9 million from the overall amount it provides to the county since 2009.

“What should we do? Close the zoo? Close Exploration Place?” Skelton asked. “No, those are county programs. This (the ranch) is a state program. Howell is trying to blame us, but that’s very unbusinesslike.”

Little support

Howell is not a member of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, so he relied on Reps. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, and Steve Anthimides, R-Wichita, to make the case for the Sedgwick County delegation. But their pleas went unheeded.

“This bill is not strictly for Sedgwick County,” Finney said, arguing that the bill would benefit facilities throughout the state.

Only one other member of the committee, Rep. Brett Hildabrand, R-Shawnee, voted in support of the bill.

Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, the former state juvenile justice commissioner, was the most vocal opponent of the bill, which would have created a new classification of youth residential centers that house medium- to high-risk juvenile offenders and would have mandated a new state cost study.

Jennings said he has no ill will toward the ranch, but he argued that the bill would undermine the state’s ability to negotiate contracts for juvenile facilities with private service providers.

“Whoever can give us the best price for goods or services, you get to do it,” Jennings said. “This contemplates building in an automatic increase in a rate for any facility (that fits the classification).”

Howell objected to Jennings’ analysis and said his bill provides incentives for facilities to meet performance standards.

If there is any hope for the ranch, Howell said, it depends on the Department of Corrections. He noted that Roberts has commissioned a new cost study, and that could potentially increase funding for next year.

Jeremy Barclay, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the agency was in the process of measuring and analyzing the effectiveness of juvenile facilities across the state.

He would not make a prognosis on the future of the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch.

“The Judge Riddel Boys Ranch is a county-operated youth residential center, which the KDOC funds to the level as determined by the consensus group,” Barclay said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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