Commissioners’ meeting gets heated over Riddel Boys Ranch funding

In what could have been a lesson for the troubled youth Sedgwick County serves at the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, two county leaders admitted they said things they didn’t mean at a Tuesday meeting and regretted doing so.

Tempers flared during a discussion about the future of the ranch, with Commissioner Richard Ranzau accusing his colleagues of meeting in secret and County Manager William Buchanan saying it had been a mistake for the county to support the ranch all these years.

The state pays the county $126 a day per boy to operate the ranch. The county had estimated its cost was $201 day, leaving a sizable gap in funding. After recent changes, the cost is about $177 a day.

Buchanan recommended closing the ranch last year about this time, arguing that the county shouldn’t continue to pay for a state program. Commissioners decided to keep it open.

Buchanan is now recommending that the county not help fund the ranch until mid-2014, and then only if the state increases the money it gives the ranch per boy per day.

The state gave the county a $750,000 boost for the ranch recently. That money is from the state’s budget for its current fiscal year, which began July 1 and ends June 30, 2014. Buchanan recommends using that money to keep the ranch open through June 30.

Ranzau made clear Tuesday that he believes the ranch is a worthwhile investment, contending that the $750,000 should not be touched until next year and should be enough to keep the ranch open through 2014.

He pressed his colleagues about when they decided to use some of that $750,000 this year, saying he didn’t remember doing so.

That’s when he accused them of having secret meetings.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Ranzau said later, saying he was merely questioning “when did that decision get made because that was never my understanding.”

He also accused the county of being deceptive with numbers. He said the county has “exaggerated the amount of money we need to get from the state to operate (the boys ranch).”

Ranzau also said that Buchanan’s recent comment that scheduling staff for 12-hour shifts, a cost-cutting measure, was non-sustainable for the long-term is not true because corrections director Mark Masterson told him staff members like the schedule.

“It’s also misleading to say that the state isn’t paying for the program,” Ranzau said after the meeting. “They’re paying for what they mandated. They’re just not paying for the other stuff we have chosen to do above and beyond on our own. People shouldn’t have the mistaken view that they’ve mandated us to all that we’re doing and they’re not paying us to do it.”

When Ranzau told his colleagues “we’re being deceptive,” Commissioner Tim Norton took exception.

“I have asked you to quit using the word ‘we’,” Norton said told Ranzau. “I have not been deceptive. I’m not buying into that, and I take a little umbrage on that tone.”

Buchanan did too.

“Any time you denigrate government, it’s hurtful to us and the staff who work pretty hard to make sure you’re giving quality community service,” Buchanan said after the meeting. “We have worked hard in this organization to be as transparent as possible.”

During the meeting Tuesday, Ranzau grilled Buchanan about why the county had funded the ranch in the past.

Pushed, Buchanan finally said it had been a mistake to do so.

But later, he said he regretted that comeback.

“When you’re being asked an absurd question, one of the mistakes I always make is answering it an absurd way. It felt like he was baiting me. I answered in an inappropriate and smarty-pants way,” Buchanan said. “We have talked about the program for years about the value of it and what the county’s role is.”

Ranzau, who recommends not only keeping the ranch open next year but paying $100,000 more to restore some positions and programs, said he was stunned by the manager’s response.

“The manager’s leading us down a path that doesn’t seem to make sense,” Ranzau said. “How can the manager say it’s been a mistake? I found that to be an unbelievable statement. What does that say about his recommendations? Is that really what we’re admitting to – that we shouldn’t have funded the ranch? Clearly we were spending more money than we needed to.”

In good financial years, Buchanan said it made sense to subsidize the ranch. A study by Wichita State University last year said the ranch saves the county just more than $1million a year in crimes that are avoided.

“When we were caught with a lack of funds, we took a good hard look at what’s our responsibility and what the state’s responsibility and concluded that this is a state responsibility,” he said.

The county recently requested that the state create a new type of youth residential center that would warrant additional funding. The boys ranch is classified as a youth residential center II, and the county has asked the state to create a youth residential center III and reclassify the boys ranch with a higher daily funding rate.

“We’re going to do the best we can to keep that facility open through June 30 of next year,” Buchanan said. “It’s a policy decision by the BOCC to keep it open after that.”

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