Lawmakers balk at plan to shut Taft Youth Center in Bledsoe County

Lawmakers balk at plan to shut Taft Youth Center in Bledsoe County

November 23rd, 2011 by Ben Benton and Andy Sher in News

Pre-season football practice at Taft Youth Center.

NASHVILLE -- A proposal to close Taft Youth Center in Bledsoe County is drawing bipartisan objections from area state lawmakers.

State Department of Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day made the proposal to shut down the facility Tuesday during her budget presentation to Gov. Bill Haslam, who is conducting the hearings in public.

"It's our most expensive place," O'Day said, also noting the facility's age and location make it difficult to operate.

According to 2011-12 budget documents from the Department of Children's Services, closing Taft would save about $12.3 million.

Juveniles at Taft, near Pikeville, would be sent to the state's four other youth centers, O'Day said.

But in a letter to the governor, two senators and three representatives called the closure of Taft "drastic" and said closing the facility is not in the interest of the state, Bledsoe County or offenders.

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said Tuesday that he and other lawmakers in the region want to look for ways to avoid a closure.

Joining Sexton in the letter to Haslam are Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City; Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere; and Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey.

"My colleagues and I are in disagreement with the commissioner on the proposed closing and believe other cost-saving measures and cuts could be implemented before taking such drastic action," Sexton said in a news release.

"Even with the more aggressive offender population, Taft has the highest success rate of any other facility for offenders who were still in the community setting 12 months post-release without a delinquent offense," he said.

The legislators said they hope the governor will visit Taft before any decision is made to close it.

Taft Youth Center spokeswoman Carol Narramore said she believes officials in Nashville are proposing the closure because of requested funding for a dining room renovation that was simply a "wish list" item.

Taft's most recent budget requested money for renovations of the dining room, Narramore said, but that item was no "must have." She said the dining room somehow gained a price tag of $32 million in the presentation, while the last price tag Taft officials put on the project "was only $2 million."

Either way, it's a renovation Taft can live without, she said.

"We have a new school and we would like to have a new dining room. But it's not something that we would have to do," she said.

Narramore said the closure of Taft would end many of the facility's most beneficial programs. Taft's recidivism rate is the lowest in the state and it has the "highest GED or diploma rate than any other institution," she said.

"Taft has run well for 94 years," Narramore said. "But if they close us, they'll also be losing 202 jobs," she said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.