A Sedgwick County commissioner is casting doubt on a new study about how much it costs to operate the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, saying the figures are inflated.
“I believe there’s a way to make this work financially, but there has to be willingness to sit down and make it work,” Commissioner Richard Ranzau said Tuesday. “At this point I don’t see that willingness in the majority of the commission or the manager. My concern is the fate of (the boys ranch) is already sealed. I hope I’m wrong, and I’m willing to sit down and find a way to make this work with anyone who would like to do so.”
The ranch for troubled boys has been in limbo for more than a year. County Manager William Buchanan last year recommended closing it, saying the state was not giving the county enough money to run it. The county asked the state for an additional $1.5 million. The Kansas Legislature responded by giving the county $750,000 in its current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The analysis of the cost per boy per day by MGT of America overestimates how much money it takes to run the ranch, Ranzau contended.
The study, for which the county paid $4,150, assumed an annual cost of $3,210,404. The ranch is staffed for 42 boys. Based on that, the cost per day is just less than $209 a boy, MGT said. But the average daily population at the ranch last year was 35 boys, making the cost per day increase to almost $250 per boy.
The state receives $126 per day per boy, a rate that hasn’t changed since 2007 and is based on 2006 costs. Lindsay Poe Rousseau, interim budget director for the county, told commissioners by e-mail Tuesday that total reimbursement from the state’s Juvenile Justice Authority last year was $1,672,524.
Ranzau challenged the study at a Tuesday meeting between commissioners and staff, saying the costs were based for most of last year on 8-hour shifts. The county switched several staff members at the ranch to 12-hour shifts in September, which allowed its corrections department to cut 11 positions for budgeted savings of $543,000 in the current year budget. Operational costs next year will be lower because of the savings, he said.
He also questioned an estimated nearly $300,000 in indirect costs to operate the ranch – time other departmental staff spend on it. MGT of America estimated that Chris Chronis, chief financial officer for the county, spends the equivalent of $13,123 of his time on the ranch. Ranzau asked Chronis whether he would reduce his $132,589 salary by $13,123 if the ranch closed. Chronis smiled and said probably not. The study said the human resources department puts in $27,773 of work on the ranch.
Ranzau has said repeatedly that he believes the county has deliberately exaggerated the cost of the ranch to justify its closing.
“I don’t necessarily believe we have to close it,” Commissioner Tim Norton said after the meeting. “We’ve got some money from the state, so that helps us limp along. But the money that we get is not funding the full program that people have become used to us having out there and think is so good.”
Norton was referencing additional programming the boys ranch offers boys that the state does not require but that studies have shown save the county money over time because of reduced recidivism. Mark Masterson, director of the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections, said in a recent e-mail to commissioners that the $750,000 from the state would allow the boys ranch to meet all current staffing and program requirements through next June 30.
He estimated that the ranch would need $96,023 more in that period to offer the type of programming it has made available in the past. That money, Masterson said, would add a full-time senior corrections counselor and a part-time corrections worker and maintain a full-time corrections worker position that is slated to be cut in January.
Ranzau has advocated not using any of the $750,000 from the state until next year and has pushed for the county to spend the nearly $100,000 to continue additional programming that the county has said sets the boys ranch apart from other youth residential centers.
A majority of commissioners have said additional programming made sense when the financial climate was better.
Over the years, Norton said Tuesday, “the gap got bigger and bigger and bigger” between what the county was spending on the ranch and what the state was paying it to operate a youth residential center II, which is what the boys ranch is classified by the state.
“The gap is there, whether you want it to be or not,” Norton said. “How far do you go to fund a government program that’s not adequately funded. I haven’t said we absolutely ought to close it yet. I was disappointed when the Legislature came back and they’re doing a two-year budget and they didn’t put us in for the second year. Now what does that tell us?”