The Judge Riddel Boys Ranch could close next year after a majority of Sedgwick County commissioners, while adopting a nearly $414 million budget for 2014, voted against a last-ditch effort Wednesday to put more money into the program.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau said the move could put the public in jeopardy because of increased recidivism among the troubled boys that the ranch has served since opening in 1961.
“We are so concerned about making the state look bad … that we won’t even put in $96,000 for that when in the past we spent up to $1.5 million,” Ranzau said after the vote. “It’s just terribly shortsighted, and I just don’t understand it.”
Commissioners voted 3-2 in support of next year’s budget. Board members Tim Norton, Jim Skelton and Dave Unruh voted for the spending plan, which includes almost $18 million for the county’s fire district, and Karl Peterjohn and Ranzau voted against it.
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The future of the boys ranch was Ranzau’s No. 1 reason for voting against the budget, and Peterjohn said he voted against it because of the ranch and a 2.5 percent pool for raises for employees, including elected officials. As he has in the past, Peterjohn pledged not to take a raise and said he didn’t think any elected officials should in this economy.
Commissioners make a base salary of $83,718.
Ranzau first tried to move just more than $1.4 million from a fund to bring some employees’ salaries up to market value to the boys ranch budget for next year. Peterjohn supported him, but a majority of the board did not.
Then Ranzau made a motion to transfer $96,023 from the board’s own contingency fund. Peterjohn again supported him, but the majority did not.
Skelton said later he couldn’t support Ranzau’s suggestions because they were Band-Aid approaches, not long-term solutions. Skelton said he plans to work with state legislators to get more money from the state to fund the boys ranch.
The state pays the county $126 a day per boy. The county’s cost had been more than $200 a day. After recent changes, including moving some staff members from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts, the cost is less, but county leaders have said the funding gap remains sizable.
The state gave the county a one-time $750,000 grant for the ranch in its current fiscal year, which ends June 30. That was half of what the county had requested. The county also has sought an increase in the per-day fee from the state.
“We can’t throw all our money at the program,” Skelton said after the meeting.
None of Ranzau’s suggestions, Skelton said, would have been long-term solutions. Trying to keep the ranch open six months or a year at a time, Skelton said, is not a solution but “an evil cycle.”
“We need a long-term plan,” Skelton said. “That’s what I pledge to obtain for the county.”
Ranzau countered that all he has seen from a majority of county leaders is roadblocks. He cited studies from Wichita State University that show the boys ranch saves the county money because the boys stay out of juvenile detention facilities and don’t re-offend.
“I have evidence that this will cost us money,” Ranzau said of the possibility of closing the ranch. “It will increase our jail population, and more people in our community will be victimized. It should be a priority.”
Unruh said the county can’t continue to bear the cost of operating the ranch, classified by the state as a youth residential center II, commonly called a YRCII.
“Even with the current grant, it doesn’t cover our costs,” Unruh said. “And that being the case, I just don’t think we can carry on the program at the level we’re carrying it with local property tax money.
“If we allow the program to diminish where it’s a typical YRCII, then there isn’t real need for us to be in the business, because other providers provide that service.”
Commissioners did unanimously approve one of Ranzau’s suggestions: to transfer $35,000 out of the board’s pot of money to the Sedgwick County Extension Center.
But the board voted against his suggestion to take $17,510 from the budget of the Regional Economic Area Partnership and put it back in the commission’s pot. Ranzau opposes a sustainable communities grant that REAP, a consortium of area cities and counties, received from the federal government.
Unruh, chairman of REAP, turned to Ranzau and said he obviously wouldn’t support the motion.
“I’m really saddened by the fact that we have some folks who think that our elected officials in the area are either complicit in some world government initiative or they’re ignorant and don’t understand that they’re being manipulated,” Unruh said. “I think you can be insulted both ways there.”
He described REAP as a “group of committed elected officials who sincerely desire the good of their communities.”
As part of next year’s budget, the county is giving the Sedgwick County Zoo an additional $373,226 and Exploration Place a bump of about $100,000. The county had cut their budgets in years past. County Manager William Buchanan has said he will meet with zoo and museum officials later this year about five-year funding agreements.
The zoo will get $5,331,411 from the county, an increase from last year of 7.5 percent, and Exploration Place will get $2,233,642, an increase of almost 5 percent.
Next year’s budget is about half a percentage point higher than this year’s, which, after revisions, stands at just more than $411 million.