For weeks, Sedgwick County commissioners have been hearing from supporters of the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch that it was a bad idea to follow the proposed 2013 budget recommendation to close it.
Wednesday, the commissioners all agreed and kept the ranch open for at least another year.
“I think it’s a very good idea,” Commissioner Richard Ranzau said.
So while he joined Commissioner Karl Peterjohn in voting against the county’s $390 million operational budget, he and the rest of the commissioners supported subsidizing the ranch for another year to see whether the state Legislature would carry a larger share of the financial burden.
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The county fire district’s $18 million was approved on a 5-0 vote, bringing the county’s total budget for next year to $408 million.
County Manager William Buchanan had recommended the ranch, which houses youth offenders, be closed as part of his proposed budget to knock out a $9.3 million deficit before the end of next year.
In public hearings, through emails and other means of communication, supporters told commissioners how much the ranch has helped boys since it opened in 1961 near Lake Afton in the western part of the county. Ranzau was particularly impressed by a Wichita State University study that showed the ranch brought a $1 million return on investment for the county from savings by preventing crimes.
That figure looked even better after new cost numbers were presented Wednesday.
The ranch had been costing the county $1.5 million per year. But in adjusting the budget to meet the commissioners’ wishes, the cost was cut to $736,282 for the next year – nearly half the previous cost.
That was attained by reducing the bed capacity for the youth residential facility from 49 beds to 42, cutting staff and moving to 12-hour shifts instead of eight hours.
To pay for the ranch’s cost next year, a plan for a youth day reporting alternative was eliminated and the proposed amount for increased compensation for county employees was reduced to 2.5 percent from 3 percent.
Commissioner Dave Unruh, who had supported closing the ranch, said he was willing to give it another year.
“I’m fully convinced this is an outstanding program,” he said. “We’re getting the results we’re after.
“But the budget requires us to close it. We’re not getting enough state help for a state program.”
He said he doubted that Topeka would pick up more of the tab. The ranch, which is filled to capacity with boys ages 14 to 20 from only Sedgwick County, costs $204 per boy per day to operate. The state provides $126 per boy per day.
Rep. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, said it was too early to know what the Legislature might do about increasing funding.
“The fact the county has kept it open is already a positive thing,” Kerschen said. He recently won the Republican primary for the 26th Senate District, which includes Lake Afton, and doesn’t face opposition in the November election.
“We need to sort out all the political rhetoric that’s been going on,” he added. “It’s not an issue of who is on what side of the aisle. We want to be effective and do what’s right.”
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said she was attending a joint state building committee meeting Wednesday when a representative of the Juvenile Justice Authority — the state agency that oversees the boys ranch and other such facilities — was presenting a plan for improvements to a Topeka facility that serves the same purpose as the boys ranch.
“So I asked how they prioritize who gets that funding,” McGinn said. “He didn’t have an answer. He said he’d get back with us.
“But here we are, the largest city in the state, and we’re not even on the radar. Where is the ranch on the radar?”
Regardless of what the Legislature decides on funding, Ranzau said the state needs to make some changes in how it handles facilities such as the ranch. He noted that the state doesn’t require operators to track recidivism rates. Sedgwick County does track it for the ranch, which is why it knows that the programs are working, he said.
“But we also pay more for those programs,” he said. “The state needs to realize that.”
He noted part of the equation that hasn’t been factored into the return on investment is the boys later getting jobs and paying taxes.
County’s deficit erased
The budget adoption concluded a 23-month effort to erase what was once a $17.5 million deficit. Other cuts over nearly two years had brought the deficit to $9.3 million before the 2013 budget took the final steps.
The last of the deficit was erased by cutting costs by $8 million and providing $1.3 million in new revenue, primarily through a fee the county will begin charging later this year to accept payments by credit card.
Cuts hit most of the areas of the county organization and outside groups.
The only area where the commission voted to restore a cut was to return $100,000 to the Department on Aging for three areas that were originally slated to be sliced by more than $169,000. The department’s advisory council will recommend how money will be distributed to the various agencies, including senior service centers, and the commission will vote on those recommendations.
“Everybody throughout the county organization will feel the pain except for essential services,” Commission Chairman Tim Norton said.
On employee compensation, reducing it from a performance-based pool of 3 percent to 2.5 percent will save more than $486,000.
Commissioners agreed on the 2.5 percent, but they couldn’t agree on how it would be distributed. Ranzau and Peterjohn want to do it through a bonus, which would be for only 2013, and the other commissioners wanted to do it through raises.
The commission will wait until closer to the end of the year to determine how it will be distributed. The reasoning was that the commission would have a better idea how the economy was faring.
Alternative cuts proposed, rejected
During the discussion before adopting the budget, Ranzau made 14 substitute motions, asking to make cuts in other areas. All of his motions were defeated 3-2, with Peterjohn backing Ranzau.
“I didn’t want to sit back and rubber stamp what staff gives me,” he said. “I wasn’t elected to do that.”
One of his motions was to drop $5,000 in funding to the Wichita Sports Commission. He also objected to a 115 percent increase in funding, to $3.25 million, for economic development.
David Miller, the county’s budget director, said $1 million of that increase was for an enhanced funding pool for a possible project coming up.
Buchanan said the budget will put the county in a good position to weather unknown economic storms in the future.
“The current economic state is in flux,” he said. “We think it’s going to improve, but we don’t know how fast.”
The commission could not agree to restore money for any other agencies or outside groups. So the Sedgwick County Extension Center will take the full $177,000 reduction, Sedgwick County Zoo $256,000, and Exploration Place $112,405.
The $8,000 in funding for the Mediation Center of Wichita, a volunteer group that needed the money for office space and supplies, also wasn’t restored.