published Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Rhea County judge criticizes state's plan to close Taft Youth Development Center

  • photo
    Rhea County Judge James "Jimmy" McKenzie
    Photo by Cliff Hightower

BY THE NUMBERS


• $51 million: Fiscal Year 2012 cost of operating the state's major Youth Development Centers, including costs of the now all-female New Visions facility

• $8.5 million: Projected annual savings in closure, including increased costs of staffing and female student housing

• $12.3 million: Taft Youth Development Center budget

• $11.3 million: Mountain View Youth Development Center budget

• $12.1 million: Woodland Hills Youth Development Center budget

• $11.3 million: John S. Wilder Youth Development Center budget

Source: Tennessee Department of Children's Services, state and local officials

While lawmakers in Nashville and Gov. Bill Haslam's office wrestle over numbers and the proposed closure of Taft Youth Development Center, a judge in Rhea County says closing the facility is a "smoke screen" for eventual privatization of juvenile justice in Tennessee.

The real dispute isn't about jobs, Rhea County Juvenile Court Judge Jimmy McKenzie said.

"We're not talking about economics, we're talking about children," he said.

"They think that they're going to put everything out and contract all of these [juvenile] inmates ... to a private enterprise to avoid these detention facilities," McKenzie said of the Department of Children's Service recommendation to close Taft.

McKenzie was among at least eight area juvenile judges and legislators to tour the facility Jan. 21 with Department of Children's Services Deputy Commissioner Albert Dawson, former superintendent at Woodland Hills Youth Development Center near Nashville.

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, arranged the tour. Other state officials touring Taft included Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; Sen. Charlotte Burkes, D-Monterey; and Juvenile Court Judges Howard Upchurch from Bledsoe County, Tommy Austin from Sequatchie County and Sam Benningfield from Van Buren County, according to officials.

Sexton said Dawson described needed improvements that were more cosmetic than structural.

He said that when he drew on Dawson's past experience in accreditation of juvenile facilities, the deputy commissioner "admitted that the building would be accredited" despite the improvements state officials say are needed.

"We were told those buildings are decrepit, decaying, and it's going to be hard to get accreditation because they're so old and they need to be torn down and replaced," Sexton said of their rainy Saturday visit. "That's not what we saw on Saturday, that's not what the judges saw on Saturday and that's not what deputy commissioner Dawson utimately told us on Saturday."

Sexton said the department "is playing politics with the students at Taft."

Dawson could not be reached Friday for comment.

The bipartisan group that visited Taft steadfastly opposes its closure and has challenged the contention that the facility needs $37 million in upgrades.

Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day, who proposed Taft's closure in response to Haslam's call for 5 percent department budget reductions, now says a recalculation of savings shows the closure will trim $8.5 million a year from the department's budget. The governor's budget proposed earlier this month does not fund Taft.

Department spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said this week that the original $4.4 million O'Day included in her recommendation in November represented savings from a net return after some savings were allocated for juvenile justice grants that were initially "scheduled to be eliminated from the nonrecurring portion of the budget, but were not."

An email from Sudderth on Thursday stated that "it is possible to dispute the $37 million in recommended improvements for the facility, but the amount of unused capacity within the ... system and efficiency of the system is indisputable."

Current state youth center occupancy stands at 69.4 percent with a per-day, per-student cost of $309.57, according to the department. Closing Taft would raise system occupancy to 87 percent and reduce systemwide per diem costs to $254.93, Sudderth said.

According to the email from Sudderth, the department believes now is the time to make these decisions.

"There may also never be another opportunity to help employees find comparable state employment just a few miles away," she states, referring to the state plan, if Taft is closed, to time it with hiring at the new Bledsoe County Correctional Complex to be completed in 2013.

The move to close Taft also proposes to provide a "separate, free-standing program" at the Children's Services New Visions facility in Nashville for the boys transferred from Taft.

"The female population will be moved to a more appropriate, lower cost, subcontracted placement," Sudderth states. "This represents an improvement in service and reduced costs."

But McKenzie and others said their visit to Taft only reinforced their contention that the facility should stay open.

McKenzie doesn't believe the remaining four centers across the state are prepared or appropriate to take on Taft's average population of more than 90, "hardcore" 16- to 19-year-olds, he said.

"Taft is the last resort," he said of the facility. "It's got programs that no other facility has."

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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