Bipartisan group blasts Taft Youth Development Center closure

photo A motorist passes the entrance to the Taft Youth Center in this file photo. The center is located north of Pikeville, Tenn.
photo Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, Wednesday in Nashville questions Department of Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day, bottom right, about Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to close the Taft Youth Development Center. O'Day argued that the facility in Bledsoe County is the oldest and least efficient among the state's five juvenile jails.

NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's call for providing the most efficient services at the lowest cost ran into a wall of criticism Wednesday from members of his own party over his plans to shut down Taft Youth Development Center.

A bipartisan group of Government Operations Committee members focused their ire on Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day, forcing her to defend her recommendations to Haslam for an hour.

Watching was an overflow crowd of Taft employees and top officials from Bledsoe County, where Taft is located, and Cumberland County.

O'Day maintained Taft deserves closure because it is the most costly of the five state prisons for young criminals.

She said closing Taft will result in an $8.5 million annual reduction in "unnecessary overhead we're carrying." That translates into about $4.4 million in actual savings because the money will be spent elsewhere within the department.

"The system on its best day today operates at 69 percent occupancy," O'Day said. "In my previous career I was a private provider and residential services, and I can tell you that with a 69 percent occupancy rate I would have been out of business in very short order."

Overall occupancy rates would improve by closing the 96-bed Taft to 87 percent, she said. She said she still couldn't have operated on such an occupancy rate. O'Day also pointed out Taft is the oldest center.

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, in whose district Taft sits, disputed cost savings. Taft and its estimated 169 employees guard over some of the oldest, most dangerous teen criminals, including gang members, Sexton said.

"With the closing of Taft there is concerns about putting these 17 1/2-year-old kids in with kids in another facility who are 14 and 15, and what's going to happen to them?" Sexton said. "And what's going to have to happen is the department is going to have to be held accountable."

O'Day said the younger offenders would be separated in the three other male centers.

Government Operations Committee Chairman Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, also weighed in.

"I think it's a bad mistake," Cobb said of closing Taft. "And I just don't think all the facts are on the table about how much it costs, what the bad buildings are."

O'Day has said because of Taft's age, it would cost $37 million to renovate. But that appears to be based on the costs of building a replacement, critics contend.

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The commissioner's repetition of Haslam's slogan of efficiency, effectiveness and low costs for providing government services drew this response from Cobb.

"The government cannot always act as an efficient private business. They can't do it," Cobb said. "They have to serve people who want help, need help, deserve help and can't get it on their own."

Moreover, Cobb asked, "Is government in the business of saving every penny even at the expense of the health and safety of even the criminal as well as the people who could be affected once they get out?"

Cobb noted that it remains to be seen what the costs are for making changes to the state's New Visions facility in Nashville, a girls' facility, that would now play home to some of the worst offenders.

He told O'Day that while the "handwriting appears to be on the wall" regarding Taft, he still intends to fight Haslam's decision to close it.

O'Day said an important consideration in choosing to close Taft over other centers is that a new regional state prison for adults is opening next year in Bledsoe. It will provide 400 jobs and departmental officials said all but four or five Taft employees should be able to find work there.

Children's Services officials are working closely with the Department of Correction to make that happen, O'Day stressed.

Earlier, Sexton took O'Day's department to task for abruptly canceling a scheduled January graduation ceremony for Taft teens who had completed GED requirements. Sexton, who has criticized the O'Day's recommendation to Haslam to shut down Taft since December, had been scheduled to speak.

O'Day said that occurred because the ceremony had been quickly scheduled and it would have been a burden to family members traveling from as far away as Memphis. But she said she did not make the decision herself.

O'Day appeared before the committee as it considered a "sunset" bill that would extend the department's existence for another six years. They delayed consideration two weeks to obtain more detailed answers on their questions.