If only the 53-year-old Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch at Lake Afton inspired as much political will as it does praise. That high regard makes its apparently imminent closure all the more tragic, especially because there are no reassuring answers for what will happen to the young offenders who could benefit from the program next year and beyond.
The gap between what the state pays to keep boys in the program and what Sedgwick County has spent to operate it has been an issue for more than a decade, but even a 2007 increase in the daily reimbursement rate to $126 per boy fell far short of the actual cost.
Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan’s 2012 proposal to close the ranch in early 2013 generated enough push-back to buy it more time and $750,000 more one-time state funding, but no sustainable plan for how to pay for operations or $14.6 million in needed capital improvements. It didn’t help that county commissioners, while united about the ranch’s importance, could be heard squabbling all the way in Topeka about how best to leverage more state help and keep it open.
In truth, the war might have been over once Kansas Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts told county officials in December that he had a glut of space elsewhere in the state for the same kind of offenders housed at the ranch. With state dollars tight and getting more so, Roberts was predictably resistant to treating the ranch as worthy of enhanced funding.
So when the Legislature adjourned over the weekend without approving additional money for the ranch for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Buchanan advised commissioners and other county officials that he’d told the county’s corrections department “to not accept any new boys into the program.”
It had just 31 residents early this week. So perhaps that’s that.
A cost study of such youth residential facilities approved by the Legislature at the urging of Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, seems like too little, too late – like the rare bipartisan moment on the House floor in February when area legislators unsuccessfully scrambled to find $750,000 more for the ranch.
Now, the county should consider again whether, as some commissioners have argued, the ranch is so crucial that county taxpayers should subsidize it long term. Because studies show the ranch saves the county more than $1 million a year by preventing recidivism and crime, there’s a strong argument that the closing is shortsighted fiscally.
The best thing about the ranch, though, is not how it saves money but how it saves lives. As Florence Riddel once wrote in The Eagle of the ranch named for her late husband: “Many of the boys going through the boys ranch over the years have been able to turn their lives around and become good citizens.”