The state says it can save about $4.4 million a year if it accepts Commissioner of Children's Services Kathryn O'Day's recommendation to close the Taft Youth Development Center in Pikeville. It implies, as well, that successful programs at Taft can be replicated at similar facilities that will remain open elsewhere in Tennessee. Say what they will, state officials have offered little evidence to support their contentions about either the savings or the programs if the center is closed.
The impetus for the rush to close the facility, it seems, is to help balance a budget adversely affected by politicians' continued refusal to end the state's almost total reliance on a regressive sales tax for revenue. Solving that problem through short-sighted cuts to vital programs seems paramount. Too little attention is being given to what is best for the troubled young men that Taft serves, for those who work there, and for the region where the youth center is located. In a more equitable world, the reverse would be true.
O'Day says the Taft Center is the least efficient in the state, though she offers little or no documentation to prove that is the case. She says that it is too remote, though it certainly is centrally located to the region it serves. Indeed, about a third of its residents come from nearby Hamilton County and surrounding areas. She says, too, that the facility needs $37 million in improvements, though there is no indication from those familiar with Taft that the cited need for improvements has compromised the work there.
Indeed, Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Suzanne Bailey told a Times Free Press reporter that "I'm so heartbroken about this [the effort to close Taft]. I consider this one of the finest facilities Tennessee has for delinquent children. And it's the closest to us." Bailey, obviously, is familiar with the Taft Center. Her opinion should carry far more weight than that of a number-crunching bureaucrat in Nashville.
So should the views of state representatives and senators. Four from the region were at a Tuesday meeting in Pikeville called to discuss the possible closure. All -- Republicans and Democrats -- oppose closure. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, flatly said that he's "seen the numbers the state has brought forward [to support closure], and they don't add up. The math is not there."
Closing the center will mean unemployment for Taft's more than 160 workers. O'Day overlooks the costs associated with that. Not long ago, O'Day said those left jobless if Taft closed should be able to find jobs at the nearby Bledsoe Correctional Complex, a state prison for adults that is scheduled to open in 2013. Neither O'Day nor any other state official, though, will say that displaced Taft employees would be guaranteed jobs at the new complex.
Even if some Taft workers eventually find jobs at the correctional facility a year or more from now, it's likely that most will go on unemployment for a year, if not more. Paying those costs and providing health care through TennCare for displaced workers could erode most of the savings forecast by O'Day.
Taft provides useful services to many of the region's most troubled young men, and it is a valuable resource to both the community where it is located and the region it services. If the state wants to close the Taft Center, it must make a strong case to do so. So far, it has failed to make a case at all.