The Tennessee Department of Children's Services says it could see a net savings of $4.4 million each year by closing Taft Youth Development Center in Bledsoe County, and could save a potential $37 million in capital costs to bring the campus' older buildings up to current building codes.
However, a bi-partisan group of legislators is fighting the notion that those buildings need to be razed simply because of their age.
"I have toured the facility multiple times and I am incredulous to the department's desire to demolish buildings based simply on the year the building was built," Sexton said in a release to the Chronicle. "Using that rationale, we should demolish the state capitol and rebuild it because it is old, too, built in 1859."
The Department of Children's Services, led by Commissioner Kathryn O'Day proposed closing the center as part of an effort to reduce its budget by 5 percent, of $40.3 million in state revenues.
Taft has an annual operating budget of $12.3 million, which is higher than other centers, according to Molly Sudderth, spokesperson for the department.
"When looking at ways to cut the budget, it was difficult to recommend closure, but the facility was the clear choice," Sudderth said.
"We tried to put together a budget that reflected the requested reduction, preserved core services and invested the state's dollars wisely."
Sexton said Monday during the Legislative Breakfast in Crossville, "They're telling us Taft is the most costly to run. It's not the most costly to run. New Visions, which is a women's youth development center in Nashville, is the most costly to run. It [Taft] doesn't even have the highest operating budget. Woodland Hills in Nashville has the highest operating budget.
"It has the highest budget. That's true. But that's because of payroll because the people at Taft have been there 20, 30 years. So the payroll's going to be higher."
Sexton said Taft had annual maintenance costs, overtime costs and workers compensation costs than other centers. Last year, the state spent $51,400 on maintenance at Taft compared to $67,000 at the Wilder Youth Development Center and $161,000 at Woodland Hills Youth Development Center. Mountain View spent $36,000 and New Visions, constructed in 2005, had maintenance costs of $38,000.
Taft Youth Development Center has a capacity of 96 students and serves male students ages 16 through 19. Taft serves juveniles serving adult sentences, their third commitment, or those that have exhibited behavioral problems at other youth development centers. There are currently 88 students at Taft with 12 in the violent offender program.
Sudderth said that, over the past five years, the number of juveniles in state custody had declined; however, the state was still operating the same number of centers with the same overhead costs.
"That resulted in inefficient per-diem costs for youthful offenders," Sudderth said, adding Taft had a per-diem rate of $375 per student.
That was one piece of the recommendation, she said. The other was the capital investment for the buildings on campus, estimated at $37 million. Those estimates call for demolition and rebuilding of the dorms, built in 1934, the administration and support building, built in 1959, the cafeteria, built in 1943, security special unit areas, built in 1982, a clinic building, built in 1932, and an auxiliary building, built in 1957. Legislators noted many of those buildings had undergone extensive renovations in the past 30 years and that the center continued to receive accreditation and pass food and fire inspections. The dorms were renovated in 1981 and $5 million had been budgeted for additional renovations in the coming years. The administrative building was renovated from 2000 to 2005, which included new doors, roof and a new heating and cooling system.
Tafts special security unit had new high-security doors installed in the 1990s and the auxiliary building was brought up to date in the 1990s. The representatives said the clinic building had had no issues reported and did not need replacement at this time.
Sexton is working with a bi-partisan group of legislators to probe into the reasons behind the proposed closure. Other legislators in the group include Sen. Eric Stewart (D-Belvidere), Rep. Bill Harmon (D-Dunlap) and State Rep. Jim Cobb (R-Spring City).
"Yesterday, Commissioner O'Day and her staff sent the requested information to us outlining the cost to rebuild Taft," said Stewart in the release. "It appears from the information we received, Commissioner O'Day is more concerned about the rehabilitation of the buildings at Taft than the rehabilitation of the students. To demolish buildings simply due to their age is short-sighted and leaves me to believe there is much more behind her proposal than what is being stated publicly. I think it's time we get to the bottom of it."
Sudderth said a portion of the operating costs for Taft would be used to provide more community-based rehabilitation programs for juvenile offenders, which research has shown to be more effective than incarceration. Also, a portion of the savings would be used to move women housed at New Visions in Nashville, a secure unit built for 24 juveniles, to a private, contracted facility. Taft currently has 12 juveniles in the violent offender program. A portion of the operating costs would also be used to increase staffing at other centers to take the remaining students. Sudderth said the state had the capacity to house all juvenile offenders even if Taft were to be closed.