Law enforcement agencies in the county will soon receive a letter from Juvenile Court Judge Charles Hague advising them that Sept. 30 will be the last day the Youth Detention Center will accept juvenile offenders.
Hague said Tuesday he was drafting the letter as his court begins the process of shutting down the center in early October. The judge is taking the “unprecedented” move in response to the Board of Commissioner’s last round of appropriation cuts, which reduced the YDC’s general-fund budget to $617,044.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you don’t have enough money to make it through the end of the year you can’t keep it open,” Hague said.
“I think it’s a very sad day for Ashtabula County,” said Commissioner Daniel Claypool, who has a background in safety services. However, based upon the county’s tight financial situation, Claypool said there’s nothing else the commissioners can do to fund the YDC this year.
The judge threatened legal action against the commissioners earlier this year when they attempted to cut his appropriations in April. The two sides agreed to non-binding arbitration and worked out an agreement that restored slightly more than half of the money commissioners intended to take away because of declining county revenue.
Several weeks after reaching the agreement, the county’s budget commission again revised downward the county’s revenue projections, forcing commissioners to reduce Hague’s Juvenile and Probate court budgets, as well as that of the YDC. Hague feels commissioners broke their agreement with him.
“Why would I want to be inclined to negotiate any more with people who have no credibility? I spent a month-and-a-half negotiating and we reached what I thought was a good faith agreement. But a few weeks later, it was, ‘No judge, the cow jumped over the moon so our agreement is not an agreement,’” Hague said.
The commissioners see it differently.
“We actually fulfilled the agreement and there were further funding reductions and he was reduced from that agreed point,” Claypool said.
Virtually all county departments took cuts of 10 percent in the last round. Most have workers on furlough and the commissioners have taken a 20-percent pay cut. The Sheriff’s Department, although not touched in the last round of budget cuts, has seen its revenue forecast drop by more than $200,000, resulting in furlough days for every department employee. Sheriff William Johnson said Tuesday he will probably have to make even more drastic cuts come December to bring his budget into line with appropriations.
The judge plans to close the center in early October, but he will keep a skeleton crew on hand to perform maintenance and provide security. He estimates it will cost the county about $73,000 for all the expenses that will be incurred during that time. Hague said his salary will not be cut during that time because it is part of his Juvenile Court compensation, which is mandated by law.
Funding the YDC has been an issue for the county going back to 2002, when the state cut its funding to detention centers. Hague says he has been in constant discussions with commissioners about the funding issues and has personally sought solutions.
During budget discussions early this year, commissioners insisted a task force be set up to study the issue, with the judge appointing three persons to it and the commissioners appointing three, said Hague. He reluctantly agreed to participate, but based upon the work he’d already done and found no alternatives, felt it was “a waste of time.”
Hague said he chose three persons to appoint and informed the commissioners, but “I never heard a word back from them.”
Claypool said there was some investigation into the possibility of transforming the detention center into a treatment center, a more expensive option, but one that could open the door to state and federal reimbursements. However, at this point, the county doesn’t seem to have any other options, including shipping the juvenile inmates to another county’s facility.
“As it stands right now, there are few alternatives,” Claypool said.
The judge said there are no grants or state money to be found that could be used to supplement the reduced county funding for the YDC.
Claypool said the YDC is an issue that needs a long-term plan for sustainability.
“It’s a matter of putting a plan together, a multi-year plan that will sustain the basic county services,” Claypool said.