Some Sedgwick County commissioners say it might be time to revisit the possibility of closing the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch.
Too many uncertainties about future state funding for the ranch make putting money into repairing its infrastructure a questionable investment for the county, they say.
Legislators passed a bill to add $750,000 more into the budget for the boys ranch during the state’s 2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1, but $8.6 million in cuts to the Kansas Department of Corrections statewide could minimize that money.
“It’s very possible that this $750,000 is not very meaningful,” County Manager William Buchanan told commissioners Tuesday during their weekly staff meeting.
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The impact on the county of statewide corrections cuts is unknown right now, said the county’s interim budget director, Lindsay Poe Rousseau. All the county knows is that the cuts are across all parts of the department and will filter down to the local level.
Commissioners expressed concerns about the state “giving us money over here and chopping it off on the other end,” as board chairman Jim Skelton worded it. “The window for proper planning really does not exist here.”
The state’s 2015 fiscal year budget does not include additional funding for operating the boys ranch.
The ranch is in disrepair and the county has estimated it would cost $14.7 million to replace it. At a minimum, it needs about $2.6 million in repairs, primarily to heating and cooling systems, plumbing and its roof.
Skelton said the county can’t invest that kind of money if operational funding is uncertain.
“I’m worried that we might have to” close the ranch, he said after Tuesday’s meeting. “I think the discussion this morning leads me to believe that it might even be worse next year. This is the state’s program, and we’ve cut our budget back too and we’re running out of places to cut. We’re going to have to start eliminating programs. We might have to consider the ranch as a cut because it’s a state program, and they’re not funding it. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I think it’s a reasonable discussion to have.”
Buchanan last year recommended closing the ranch, but commissioners said the ranch was valuable in helping boys turn their lives around and opted make a plea to the Kansas Legislature for more money. It asked for $1.5 million and got half that.
The state had given the county $126 per day per boy, but the actual cost to operate the ranch was $204.
The ranch is a youth residential center and a state program but is operated by the county. The county publishes outcomes of youth at the ranch although the state does not require that. Other youth residential centers in the state do not publish outcomes.
To keep the ranch open, the county reduced its capacity from 49 beds to 42, cut staff and moved to 12-hour shifts instead of eight hours.
“The long-term prospects for continued adequate operational funding are chancy at best because of the current financial environment. It seems like our best strategy would be to contemplate a way to bring that facility to a close. We are not in a position to adequately fund the capital improvements,” Commissioner Dave Unruh said.
It “seems foolish to put a couple million dollars worth of repairs into it and then find out we won’t receive adequate funding. If we knew for sure that the state was going to back us with adequate funding, we would find a way to put (the ranch) in our capital improvement plan,” Unruh said.