Wichita-area lawmakers not ready to give up on Judge Riddel Boys Ranch

South-central Kansas legislators said they are not ready to give up the fight when it comes to the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch.

Sedgwick County hosted a lunch for Wichita-area lawmakers Wednesday, a day after a House bill meant to save the boys ranch died in committee.

Some legislators vented their anger at county officials over the possibility that the ranch will close this summer, while others pledged to go back to the drawing board to craft a new solution.

Before the lunch, Sedgwick County Chairman Dave Unruh discussed the possible closing of the juvenile facility, which is operated by the county for the state. The county says it costs $201 per boy per day to run the ranch; the state provides $126 per boy per day. The state provided $750,000 in additional funding for the current year.

“We were given enough to keep it open through June of 2014,” Unruh said. “So upon that date, without something changing, we’re going to have to make some sort of plan that provides the adequate supervision for these kids, but it’s not likely going to be at the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch.”

“The reality is that we’re a vendor for the state,” Unruh said. “And as a vendor, if we’re not compensated for our programs we can’t continue.”

Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, who spent several years during his youth at the Mariana Boys Home in Wichita, said he saw the boys at the ranch as kindred spirits. He voiced anger that the county would consider closing the ranch over funding. He said other programs are not as necessary to the community.

“I don’t care how we approach it. We cannot let this program fail. To me it’s nonsensical that we are in the position that we are in right now,” Goico said.

Unruh reminded Goico that the county has experienced revenue reductions from tax reforms passed by the Legislature. He said that before the loss of revenue, the county could pay for additional funding for the ranch, but that it can no longer bear that burden.

Goico did not take those words kindly.

“Are you telling me that it’s our fault that the boys ranch is being closed? That’s what I understand you to say, and that does not make me very happy. I take that personal,” Goico said.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, told Sedgwick County commissioners that he understood the challenges the county is facing and said legislators would try to come up with another solution to fund the boys ranch during the second half of the session.

“We’re not ready to give up on this yet,” Brunk said.

Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, said a proviso he crafted earlier in the session to offer increased funding for the ranch and similar facilities is the best hope to save Judge Riddel.

Kerschen has not yet determined what dollar amount would go to Riddel if that plan moves forward.

“The only thing we can sell right now is that we share with all the other (youth residential centers),” Kerschen said. “I cannot request $1 million every year and those folks (other facilities) get nothing.”

Kerschen’s proviso was left out of the Corrections budget when the Ways and Means Committee passed it out to the Senate. But Kerschen said the committee can pass it later in the session.

Kerschen said he was committed to keeping the ranch open.

“I read in the paper today that ‘maybe we ought to give it back to the state and let them run it,’ ” said Kerschen, referring to a comment from Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton in The Eagle.

“Well, maybe we’ll take that serious.”

The Corrections department said in a statement that it does not own any youth residential centers and that taking on Judge Riddel “would represent a large policy shift for the agency.”