A Sedgwick County program that helps steer troubled young men away from the prison system may hang in the balance as lawmakers begin their annual slog through the state’s spending plan.
County officials have been asking legislators for months to boost funding for the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch for the first time since 2007 to help the county keep the facility open.
But state lawmakers are under intense pressure to trim spending to accommodate tax cuts, and some have questions about the long-term outcomes of the young men who live at the aging facility near Lake Afton.
Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, who has been working on the issue throughout the session, said he hopes to maintain support for some money to keep the ranch running while requiring some new reporting standards to help prove the program is working and deserves more money.
“If we know we’re saving kids’ lives, and making them productive members of society by investing a small amount of money on the front end, we’re saving taxpayer dollars on the back end,” he said.
Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan had recommended closing the ranch last year. County commissioners instead decided to seek more funding help from the state. In the meantime, they reduced the ranch’s capacity from 49 beds to 42, eliminated some positions and increased the length of shifts to help keep costs down.
The ranch houses high-risk male juvenile offenders, age 14 to 20, who are from Sedgwick County but ended up in state custody. It provides education, behavior management, job skills training, trails, sporting facilities and other amenities that, for many, provide a stark contrast to abusive childhoods and criminal activity in their home neighborhoods.
Offenders stay there an average of 150 days before supervised release. It’s unique from the state’s other youth residential facilities in that it specializes in kids from urban areas.
More than half of the boys make it through the program. Of them, about 75 percent didn’t get convicted of another crime within a year from release, according to the county’s analysis of boys from 2007 to 2011.
But Howell and others say they would like to see how the boys are doing after three years, and a bill the House is likely to vote on next week would require that of all such facilities — others haven’t produced such reports.
Howell said he expects that the facility is doing well, but the additional reporting would help lawmakers make the case to boost funding.
Whether new money will be added comes down to negotiations between House and Senate budget leaders who have competing spending plans.
Rep. Marc Rhoades, a Republican from Newton who leads budget debates for the House, said he plans to hang onto the House’s version of the budget, which includes $750,000 for the ranch.
“If we can catch them before they progress further and help them deal with their issues, we want to do that,” he said of juveniles. “I prefer prevention rather than after the fact.”
The Senate’s proposal has no new money for the ranch.
Sedgwick Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a former Sedgwick County commissioner, tried to add $750,000 to the Senate’s budget, but GOP leaders said the proposal ran afoul of new conservative budget rules that strictly limit new funding proposals.
Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Jim Skelton said the $750,000 is short of what the county had hoped for, but he said he believes it may be the best the state can do this year.
“I think we’re going to try to make it work,” he said.
Howell said he was surprised that the county would threaten to close the facility without more money.
“I’m shocked commissioners would give us basically a threat that if we don’t find full funding, they’ll shut the place down,” he said.
The ranch has cost the county about $1.5 million a year to operate. The state has given the county $126 per day per boy, but the county says the actual cost is more than $200 per day per bed.
Both the state and county have been cutting back on many services due to budget constraints, tax cuts and politicians with increasingly conservative, limited government philosophies.
Skelton said the county faces further budget cuts, and it can’t just shift money around to fund the program as it should be.
He declined to say whether he believes the county will truly close the facility if the state doesn’t lock in more money in coming weeks.
“I don’t care to speculate on that,” he said. “It’s a very ugly proposition.”