PIKEVILLE, Tenn. - About 250 people packed a Bledsoe County courtroom Tuesday night to protest the proposed closing of Taft Youth Development Center -- the main destination for many of Hamilton County and Southeast Tennessee's youthful offenders.
"I'm so heartsick about this. I consider this one of the finest facilities Tennessee has for delinquent children. And it's the closest to us," said Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Suzanne Bailey in a phone conversation before the meeting began Tuesday evening.
Bailey, like many at the meeting, said the state's plan to close Taft is short-sighted -- both for the 156 teenage boys there now and for $4.4 million the state claims could be saved a year.
More than a third of the boys at Taft are from Hamilton and other surrounding Southeast Tennessee counties.
At least four state lawmakers from the region were at the meeting in Pikeville on Tuesday to voice the same concerns.
"I've seen the numbers the state has brought forward, and they don't add up. The math is not there," said Tennessee Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, who represents North Hamilton and Rhea counties.
Cobb and Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, as well as Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, told the group they and other local legislators will fight the closure, but they will need help from the people to get Gov. Bill Haslam and Commissioner of Children's Services Kathryn O'Day to take the proposed closure out of the new budget that will be presented to lawmakers this year.
Pikeville officials told the lawmakers they have resolutions from local city and county commissioners and a public petition bearing 1,845 signatures.
Sexton told the group the loss of 170 jobs would be felt much more by a rural community such as Pikeville than it would in a metro area such as Nashville.
Typically, the youths at Taft have adult sentences, serious delinquent offenses, are serving a third commitment, or have exhibited severe behavioral problems at one of the other regional Youth Development Centers.
"They are the worst of the worst," said Stewart, who represents Bledsoe, Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren counties.
"But this is not a school for lost causes. It's more like a school of last chances. And if they're not in the [adult prison] system [later], that saves a lot of money. The staff and program at Taft have probably had the greatest successes than any with these serious offenders and older children," he said.
Sam Raney Jr. was one of many in the audience who asked questions and made comments. He asked the lawmakers if they know the plans for the assets at Taft if it is closed. He was told the property likely would be sold as surplus to another state department.
"Sounds like we'd just be taking the money out of one pocket and putting it in another," Raney said.