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County Commission candidates back reopening Judge Riddel Boys Ranch

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at 8:11 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, July 17, 2014, at 7:12 a.m.

Sedgwick County plans to close the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch next month, but candidates for the County Commission say they would consider reopening it if they are elected.

Meanwhile, one of the candidates said he’s heard talk from private groups that want to lease the ranch and run it for the county.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau put forth the idea of reopening the Lake Afton ranch for troubled boys at a meeting Friday of the Wichita Pachyderm Club.

He told the audience he would push to get the ranch back open if state Rep. Jim Howell, who is running for the seat now held by Jim Skelton in District 5, were to join the board in January. He later expanded that to include the other Republican candidate in District 5, Derby Mayor Dion Avello.

When commissioners recently voted on a plan to adopt out eight horses used at the ranch, Ranzau asked for a contingency plan in case the county wanted the horses back.

“The manager needs to keep that in mind,” Ranzau said. “We may have a change of direction.”

Ranzau was alluding to the possibility of a new majority on the commission, with him, Commissioner Karl Peterjohn and Howell if he were elected.

“They would at least be open to having the discussion,” Ranzau said.

It turns out all of the candidates in Districts 4 and 5 are open to that discussion.

“I’ve always supported keeping the ranch open and I’ve always voted for the funding,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a former commissioner who is running against Ranzau in the Republican primary in District 4. “I would certainly be very open to reopening it. As we move forward, we may have to redesign how we do that program.”

Democrat Melody McCray-Miller, a former legislator and commissioner who will face Ranzau or McGinn in November, said she would be willing to discuss reopening the ranch but also thinks the county needs to “seriously look at prioritizing dollars at the front end with prevention programs.”

Howell’s opponents, Avello and Richard Young, a Democrat, also say they would like to see the ranch reopened.

A funding gap in what the state pays the county and what the county says it costs to operate the ranch led County Manager William Buchanan to recommend closing the facility two years ago.

The state has paid the county $126 per boy per day, but the county’s cost has been about $200 per boy per day. The Kansas Legislature gave the county $750,000 in additional funding in the fiscal year that ends next week. No additional money was budgeted for the fiscal year that starts July 1. As a lawmaker, Howell sought a solution but none was reached.

Buchanan asked Mark Masterson, director of the county’s department of corrections, to stop taking additional boys on May 5.

An e-mail Buchanan sent to commissioners said that 14 boys would remain at the ranch until July 18 to complete summer school and that the last boy was scheduled to leave July 20. The county likely will lay off a few employees at the ranch. Some already have taken other positions.

The county will mothball the building after it closes, and the corrections department will distribute any usable equipment – with the exception of the horses.

Ranzau said he recognizes that staffing the ranch could prove problematic.

Avello and Howell said they would be willing to work to overcome that obstacle to reopen the ranch.

“That’s a bad thing, closing that place,” Avello said. “I would look for funding if we could find it and (get) it back open. I agree with that.”

“Without a doubt, absolutely,” Howell said. “It’s a great resource. The reason it exists is because it was a good idea.”

Howell said he is concerned that boys who would have been candidates for the ranch will instead go to youth residential centers spread across the state, away from their families.

“You end up with kids in Kansas City,” Howell said. “You end up with kids in Dodge City.”

Howell also said he would be open to a private group operating the ranch. He said he’s heard from “private organizations that might take over the role of the county if they can get their hands on the property.”

He would not divulge who was behind the groups, saying it was too early.

If the county leased the ranch to a private group, Howell said, the county would have to make sure “they have a heart for what they’re doing and not just a profit motive.”

Brittany Clampitt, a county spokeswoman, said Wednesday that “we’ve had several inquiries about the future use of the property” and that commissioners and staff would discuss those inquiries at a regular weekly meeting Tuesday.

Peterjohn, whose District 3 includes the boys ranch, said he hadn’t been approached by any private groups. He said he would be open to that concept or to the county itself reopening the ranch, classified as a youth residential center II by the state.

“Details will be vital in terms of working it out, but I certainly would like to see that facility open and operating,” he said. “I regret that we got in this situation. I don’t believe it was necessary, but it is what it is.”

Commissioner Dave Unruh, who is unopposed for re-election in District 1, said the “decision to close the ranch was based on solid financial analysis and also who is responsible for those detainees. I think the decision was, although difficult, the correct decision. If there comes a time a majority of commissioners find a way to reopen it, we’ll have to find a way to fund it but it will mean the elimination of some other programs.”

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

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