Targeting Southeast Tennessee

Targeting Southeast Tennessee

April 5th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Closing the Taft Youth Development Center in Pikeville, Tenn., was probably a done deal the moment the Haslam administration cut funds for its continued operation in the proposed budget. A reasoned case for keeping the center open or political pressure to do so has failed to reverse the decision. It's the latest in what increasingly appears to be the administration's callous disregard for residents of Chattanooga and Southeast Tennessee.

That was made clear Tuesday when Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes said the administration opposes a last-minute budget amendment by Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, to provide $12 million to keep the Bledsoe County facility open. Emkes' statement is the death knell for Taft. Sexton says as much.

It will be "extremely difficult" to get the GOP-controlled legislature to support his amendment if the Republican governor opposes it. The administration, in fact, is so confident that Taft will be closed that inmates already are being moved to other facilities, though none has a history of dealing positively with the state's most hardened and violent young male criminals.

What's best for youth in trouble with the law but still of an age where rehabilitation is possible apparently did not factor into the decision to close Taft. What does matter is saving money. The administration claims it will save $8.5 million annually. The long-term costs, though, easily could exceed that.

Closing Taft means that Chattanooga area youth once assigned there now will be housed far from home. That will make visits from parents and others whose interaction is vital to the rehabilitative process more difficult and expensive. Juvenile court officials, social workers and others correctly worry that severing such ties to home will lead to higher recidivism rates. The state will pay for that in higher law enforcement and incarceration costs in the future. That doesn't seem to matter to the administration.

What it wants to do, it seems, is to punish Chattanooga and Southeast Tennessee. How else is there to explain the closure of Taft? Or the elimination of funding for the Chattanooga-based TEAM centers, which provided diagnostic and treatment services to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Or on-going cuts at Moccasin Bend Hospital. Or, perhaps most egregiously, the state's continued refusal to forward full payment of Basic Education Program (BEP) funds undeniably due Hamilton County's schools.

Haslam, a former mayor of Knoxville, should know how important the BEP education dollars are to schools, students, local government and the future of the state. He should know, too, that closing Taft and reducing or eliminating vital services used by the area's most vulnerable population is short-sighted and the antithesis of the highest calling of public service. Chattanooga area residents deserve better from the Haslam administration.