Sedgwick County to offer bonuses to keep employees at boys ranch

A student reads in the library of the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch at Lake Afton, Sedgwick County's place for juvenile offenders who are at medium to high risk of reoffending. (June 1, 2012.)
A student reads in the library of the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch at Lake Afton, Sedgwick County's place for juvenile offenders who are at medium to high risk of reoffending. (June 1, 2012.) The Wichita Eagle

The Judge Riddel Boys Ranch is running through employees as workers seek jobs elsewhere because of the uncertain future of the program for troubled boys.

Sedgwick County is going to try to keep them on with incentive bonuses.

Commissioners on Wednesday approved personnel policy changes that will allow Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan to award bonuses to certain critical employees, including those who work at the boys ranch at Lake Afton, and some information technology workers. Buchanan said he and budget staff have estimated the county could spend as much as $190,000 in bonuses.

The county has committed to keep the boys ranch open through at least June 30. Unsure what will happen after that, employees are leaving for more stable paychecks.

“I’m in a constant state of hiring,” Mark Masterson, director of the county’s department of corrections, told The Eagle on Wednesday. “Retention of qualified staff is more difficult as the June 30 deadline approaches and there’s no clear resolution in sight over the long-term funding.”

Those who work at programs such as the boys ranch require certain skills and backgrounds, and it takes a while to train new employees, he said.

Incentive bonuses will be an “important tool” to retain staff, Masterson said.

Last year, of 21 corrections worker positions at the ranch, 13 turned over. That’s a turnover rate of 62 percent. Masterson said 21 different people worked in the 13 positions that turned over. In 2009, for comparison, there were 27 corrections worker positions at the ranch, and four turned over that year for a turnover rate of 15 percent. Corrections workers monitor the youth and enforce program rules and routines, Masterson said.

There are fewer corrections worker positions because the ranch moved to 12-hour shifts to save money.

Half of the direct-care corrections workers employed at the ranch now have less than six months of experience, Masterson said.

Masterson stressed that he has not been authorized to give out bonuses. Buchanan will have final say about who is considered crucial enough to receive a bonus and how the bonus will be awarded – as a flat amount, a percentage of salary or an amount based on the number of days an employee stays.

The future of the ranch has been uncertain for several years. The state pays the county $126 per day per boy. The county had spent about $200 a day per boy but reduced those costs with the move to 12-hour shifts. The Kansas Legislature approved a one-time grant of $750,000 in its current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The county had asked for $1.5 million.

The county runs the boys ranch for the state.

State Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts at a December meeting questioned the amount spent on staffing at the ranch. He also repeatedly noted that the state had a surplus of bed space for the type of juvenile offenders held at the ranch.

He said if he raised the amount the state pays toward operation of the ranch, he would have to increase for other programs, costing his department an estimated $10 million it doesn’t have.

“After the secretary’s visit, it was clear to our employees that the money was not coming from him and, number two, that they (the Kansas Department of Corrections) had plenty of capacity,” Buchanan said. “That caused our employees to start looking around for other opportunities.”

Buchanan said he asked Masterson to look at “what we could do to assure that JRBR is run in a safe way. We need to keep it open and make it as safe as possible until the Legislature makes a decision this spring.”

Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to approve the policy change. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn voted against the personnel policy changes, saying they create a new way of doing business for the county. He said the county itself created uncertainty at the ranch by not committing to keep the ranch open through the end of the year and beyond. He said the county needs to give the ranch a firm commitment, not a financial Band-Aid.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau reluctantly voted for the policy changes that will allow incentive bonuses.

“This is not the best solution,” he said. “It’s a poor solution.”

Ranzau noted that he tried during budget discussions last year to move money set aside to bring some employees’ salaries up to market value to the boys ranch budget. Peterjohn supported him, but a majority of the board did not. Ranzau also proposed moving about $96,000 to the ranch from the board’s own contingency fund. Peterjohn again supported him, but the majority of commissioners did not.

“We could have given money last year to keep the ranch open until Dec. 31,” Ranzau said. “We chose not to do that. I was told we didn’t have money last year to help JRBR. Now we have $190,000 to try to get people to stay until the end.”

Ranzau proposed making a commitment to keep the ranch open through this year and use the $190,000 toward that. He also said that if the Legislature gives the county more money to operate the ranch – the county has asked for $210 a day per boy – the county should commit to keeping the ranch open through 2015.

Masterson said he must shore up a revolving door.

Asked if he thought the estimated $190,000 could be better used in another way, Masterson said there were too many variables and questions that he didn’t have answers for yet, including support from the state.

“I can’t afford to lose the other 50 percent of my staff who have considerable experience,” he said. “If the ranch is going to close June 30, this would be the best use of the money.”

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