July 10, 2012

Commissioners: Don’t expect state help to keep Judge Riddel Boys Ranch open

While Sedgwick County commissioners explore options to avoid closing the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, some of them are warning that the county shouldn’t rely on the state for help.

While Sedgwick County commissioners explore options to avoid closing the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, some of them are warning that the county shouldn’t rely on the state for help.

The county has discussed whether to close the ranch, which serves 40 juvenile offenders, because of budget constraints. The county faces a $9.3 million deficit, which it is trying to whittle to zero by the end of next year.

“I have continued concern about closing that facility,” Commissioner Jim Skelton told his colleagues Tuesday, saying something needs to be done to serve some of the county’s most vulnerable children.

“I’m not saying the county needs to do it all itself,” Skelton added.

But Commissioner Dave Unruh said he was wary about counting on the state for help.

“Next year, we’re going to have 40 new people in the state Legislature,” he noted. “I don’t think we can come close to predicting what they’ll do, and I don’t think we can rely on them. I think we have to play in the sandbox we’ve got. And we’ve only got so much sand.”

Commissioner Tim Norton said he’s heard from several legislators pleading for the county to keep the ranch open and promising to help with funding during next year’s legislative session.

“They could have done something this session,” Norton said.

The ranch serves young men aged 14 to 20. It is a state juvenile corrections program, but the cost to the county to operate the ranch outweighs the funding it receives from the state. The state pays the county $126 a day for each resident; the county’s total cost is $204 a day per resident.

Asking for more funds

County Manager William Buchanan has noted that the state’s reimbursement to the county has not changed since 2007 and is based on 2006 actual costs.

He recently wrote to Terri Williams, acting commissioner of the state’s Juvenile Justice Authority, asking for more money for the ranch.

“We know the importance of the work done at (the ranch) and the positive impacts these programs can have and because of these factors, I am asking for your assistance,” Buchanan wrote in his July 5 letter.

He said the county could no longer afford to make up the difference between what it costs to operate the ranch and what the state pays the county.

“We cannot continue to make up this difference, and we will be faced with discontinuing this program without financial assistance from the state,” he told Williams.

Buchanan said Tuesday he had not yet heard back from Williams. Juvenile Justice Authority spokesman Jan Lunsford said Williams received the letter Monday or Tuesday morning and had not yet had a chance to respond. He said the county’s request will be considered during budget discussions for next year, which are just starting.

Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, said he plans to push for increased funding next year and hopes the county will keep the ranch open until at least then.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Kelsey said, noting that funding hasn’t increased since 2007.

“We can’t shut down this kind of program,” Kelsey said. “It’ll be a disaster.”

If the ranch is shut down, some of the boys would go to the juvenile detention facility.

Ideas for savings

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he has been looking at ways to restructure the ranch to get “some significant savings.”

Corrections director Mark Masterson said he has studied whether switching to 12-hour staffing shifts could save the ranch money. He cautioned in an e-mail Tuesday to Peterjohn and other officials, however, “as a cautionary note, we have no experience to judge whether 12-hour shifts will be a safe or sustainable operational methodology. Having fewer positions will amplify the impacts of leaves due to work comp, sick, vacation and (family medical leave). Short staffing may expose the facility to citations for violating licensing standards as well as liability for injuries to staff and/or residents.”

Buchanan said even if the county gets more money or reduces staff, the ranch itself remains a problem. It is in disrepair and the county estimates that replacing it would cost just less than $15 million.

Closing the ranch remains an option, said Buchanan, who will present his 2013 recommended budget to commissioners next week.

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