Sedgwick County moves to close Judge Riddel Boys Ranch

Sedgwick County has started taking steps to shutter the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch after the Kansas Legislature did not earmark more money for the home for troubled boys.

County Manager William Buchanan sent an e-mail Monday to commissioners and other county leaders saying that he was instructing the county’s department of corrections “to not accept any new boys into the program.”

Buchanan’s e-mail said that he would share his closure plans for the ranch next week at a staff meeting with commissioners. He told The Eagle he would have nothing more to say until then.

The boys ranch, which opened in 1961 and is operated by the county for the state, has been in limbo for several years. In 2012, Buchanan recommended closing the ranch at Lake Afton if the state would not pay more. 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 a move to 12-hour shifts for staff. There were 31 boys at the ranch Monday.

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. No additional money was budgeted for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The ranch offers intensive programming for boys to try to turn their lives around. A Wichita State University study has said it saves the county just more than $1 million a year in crimes that are avoided.

“I’m very much concerned that the losers will be public safety in this community in the long run and obviously the youth who would have participated in this program and won’t get the opportunity after this facility is closed,” said Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, whose district includes the ranch.

The boys ranch became a political football of sorts with county officials, legislators and Kansas Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts exchanging barbs.

At a meeting in December, Roberts questioned the amount spent on staffing at the ranch and repeatedly noted that the state had a surplus of bed space for the type of juvenile offenders held at the ranch.

In his note Monday, Buchanan reminded commissioners that Roberts “made it very clear that there were plenty of beds available” for offenders throughout the state.

Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, who pushed for more funding, said of the county, “They’re under the impression that there’s plenty of bed space. Where do they end up? You end up with kids in Kansas City.”

“This is a family values issue. I don’t want these families broken up,” he said.

Howell also said that a bill calling for a cost study of facilities designated as youth residential centers II could have given the county help after July 1, 2015. It is expected to be signed by Gov. Sam Brownback.

“There was cavalry on the way,” said Howell, who is running for a commission seat.

Howell also repeated his concern that the county prematurely spent the $750,000 the Legislature awarded for the current year, saying he had expected that money to keep the ranch open through the end of 2014.

That argument didn’t sit well with a majority of commissioners, who said there was no obligation to wait to spend it.

Howell said Monday that because negotiations on the state budget bill happened without the House ever passing a budget of its own, he was unable to add an amendment with additional funding for the ranch. He voted against the budget late Friday because of that.

“I was in the process of drafting a letter to the county commission to encourage them to make a choice to keep it open,” he said when reached about Buchanan’s memo to commissioners.

“I find this tragic,” he said. “I think it’s bad for our families, it’s bad for our community and it’s not good for taxpayers.”

Commission Chairman Dave Unruh said he would have supported keeping the boys ranch open if the state would have fully funded its operational costs.

“The Secretary of Corrections says he has plenty of capacity for the number of boys we have out there,” Unruh said. “I think they’ll be taken care of appropriately in accordance with the judicial system and the whole penalty structure.”

Unruh said it was his understanding that corrections employees who had temporarily been assigned to work at the ranch would return to their normal assignments and that longtime ranch employees would have opportunities for other jobs in the corrections department.

Asked for more information, county spokeswoman Brittany Clampitt said about 37 employees would be affected and reiterated, “we’ll have more definitive information next Tuesday.”

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