Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed budget would close Pikeville's Taft Youth Center

Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed budget would close Pikeville's Taft Youth Center

January 31st, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

Pre-season football practice at Taft Youth Center.

POLL: Should Taft Youth Center be closed?

NASHVILLE -- Regional lawmakers from both parties are objecting a provision in Gov. Bill Haslam's $30.08 billion spending plan that closes Taft Youth Center in Pikeville.

Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, called the proposal, which area lawmakers hoped to keep from being included in the budget, a "total mistake."

Everyone across the state is "jumping up and down about the gang problems," Harmon said Monday. "And the governor's starting a new gang program. Chattanooga's trying to start a new gang program."

Noting that "most gangs start with young people in their teens," Harmon said, "we're shutting down the facility that most gang members would wind up in and are afraid of."

Haslam has proposed beefed-up penalties for gang- and gun-related crimes. They cost some $4.8 million. Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield has called for other measures targeting gang members.

Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day has said Taft is the state's oldest youth center, is inefficient and would require $37 million to bring it up to current standards. The facility's hardened teen residents will be transferred to other state centers, she said.

After hearing regional lawmakers' original objections, Haslam promised to re-examine the issue, but the result turned out to include O'Day's plan. No immediate explanation was forthcoming from the governor's office when the budget was unveiled Monday.

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who represents Bledsoe County where Taft is located, said, "We're disappointed that it's not in the budget. But there's still the legislative process to go through. We're still going to work it ... and see if there's a chance to put it back in the budget."

Department spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said Children's Services is coordinating with the Department of Correction, which officials hope can hire many of Taft's 169 employees.

Taft's closure will come in phases with hiring at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex. It is slated to open in 2013 but will begin hiring workers this summer, she said.

Haslam's budget plan calls for eliminating 1,166 state positions, 617 that are filled. Many of the filled positions come from Taft and Haslam's proposed closure of Lakeshore Mental Health Institute in Knoxville.

That continues a dramatic decline in state workers since the Great Recession. The number of positions has dropped from 49,835 in 2008 to 45,072 in the current budget. In his 2012-13 spending plan, which is Haslam's second budget, the figure falls to 43,906.

State revenues, meanwhile, are on the mend. The governor is calling for 2.5 percent pay raises for state employees. He also is calling for cuts in state sales taxes on food and boosting an existing exemption for inheritance taxes.

Other proposals call for a $696.1 million capital construction and maintenance plan. About $335.4 million targets higher education.

That includes $3 million in planning funds for a proposed $59.5 million life sciences laboratory facility at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"That's great; that's good," House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said.

Bradley County, meanwhile, is slated for a $23.2 million veterans community living center that local officials have sought for years.

The state will provide $3 million in bonds. The remainder of the project is funded with local government matching funds and $13 million from the federal government.

"It's exciting," said House Assistant Majority Leader Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland.

Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, said the "proposed 140-bed veterans home will now be a reality" and benefit veterans. He thanked Haslam for including funding.

Haslam's budget proposal includes $70 million in FastTrack funding that he believes can go directly to help lure businesses to the state.

There's the first additional funding for higher education operations -- about $25 million -- in four years. During his State of the State address, he urged higher education officials to tamp down on tuition hikes.

Haslam's budget proposal also included funding for his previously announced legislative agenda, including:

• Reducing the sales tax on groceries from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent.

• Boosting the exemption for the inheritance tax from $1 million to $1.25 million.

• Mandatory jail time for people convicted of repeat domestic violence crimes. But part of the costs would be borne by counties.

• Battling methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse.

The plan also calls for placing $50 million into the state's rainy day emergency fund. That would bring the reserves to about $350 million.

Haslam summed up his speech by pledging to remain dedicated to keeping costs down in state government.

"I promise to be relentless when it comes to providing the very best service to our taxpayers for the very lowest price," he said. "They deserve it."

But Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said while she applauded Haslam's bipartisan approach and his goals, she didn't think his ideas fit the economic crisis in her black-majority district.

"I represent a very poor district, a black district in black Chattanooga," Brown said, noting that while much of Tennessee is working its way out of the recession's aftermath, the black community is still "facing a depression. And what we need is a Marshall plan."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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