Juvenile justice center finalizes building, fee changes

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

Aug. 12, 2017 at 9:45 p.m.
Updated Aug. 13, 2017 at 6 a.m.

About 40 juveniles stay at  Victoria's regional juvenile detention center. The center recently had renovations, including a new fire alarm panel, smoke detectors, roof repair and ductwork.

About 40 juveniles stay at Victoria's regional juvenile detention center. The center recently had renovations, including a new fire alarm panel, smoke detectors, roof repair and ductwork.   Ana Ramirez for The Victoria Advocate

Sheltering the kids at Victoria's regional juvenile justice center from life's storms as well as the elements requires smart financial planning, center officials said.

"If we have five Victoria County kids in here, the lights have to be on," said Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Pama Hencerling. "So if we could take in another county's kids and make a little money on it, it just makes it that much nicer."

As of Friday, workers had completed about 98 percent of renovations, which include installing new, in-cell smoke detectors, replacing ventilation systems and repairing a leaky roof, said Kelly Arnecke, the center's assistant chief probation officer.

"There's still some fine-tuning to be done," Hencerling said.

On an early August afternoon, a dormitory where girls worked through their afternoon lessons was cool and mostly quiet - save for the hum of an unseen ventilation system. And after the completion of roof repairs, the dorm as well as the rest of the building should stay dry, Arnecke said. For years, employees and residents have endured random leaks from storms, he said.

"You would just see the water coming in, throughout, even in these offices," said Arnecke, sitting in Hencerling's office.

With those improvements, which cost about $1 million from the county's general fund, come recent changes to how the center pays for itself, said County Judge Ben Zeller.

"Working together, we've saved our local taxpayers a big chunk of money," Zeller said.

About half of the center's 2017 budget will be paid for using its own revenue with another half coming from county taxpayers, Zeller said.

Although board members first voted in 2015 to raise the prices for housing other counties' juvenile inmates, commissioners delayed the change until September 2016 to allow the completion of an independent study, Hencerling said.

Funded by about $135,000 of the Victoria County District Attorney's Office's seized civil forfeiture money, that study showed county taxpayers were subsidizing about $800,000 annually to house out-of-county residents, Zeller said.

"It became clear that we needed to recoup our costs," he said.

After the study's completion, daily prices for moderate, specialized and pregnant residents were increased from $110 to $115, $140 to $162.30 and $162.30 to $200, respectively.

In 2018, fees will increase further for specialized and pregnant residents to $197.69 and $225, respectively.

Specialized residents include those who require customized treatment such as residents who are younger than 13 or are suffering from substance abuse.

Those rate increases - coupled with rising numbers of both out-of-county juveniles and younger residents who require specialty programs - are widening the gap between the center's costs and revenues.

While the center has budgeted about a $214,000 increase in costs, officials also are expecting about a $415,000 increase in revenue, Zeller said.

As of June 30, the center already had earned about 64 percent of its yearly revenue, Hencerling said.

"If you hit June 30, you should be at your halfway point if you are just breaking even," she said. "But we are way ahead of that."

Considering the center is facing increased costs from expanding specialized programs as well as rising numbers of all residents, Hencerling said, that revenue is warmly welcomed.

Comparing May 2016 to May 2017 in the center's average daily population shows an increase from 38 children to 46, Arnecke said.

"We have an eight-kid increase," he said.

Since the center's budget fell sharply from $3.295 million in 2009 to $2.558 million in 2011, costs have risen gradually, reaching $3.054 million in 2017, according to data provided by center officials.

With the nearest available juvenile justice center about 100 miles away in Hays County, keeping local juveniles at Victoria's center cuts out less obvious costs - like driving, Arnecke said.

Because the Texas Family code requires the juvenile's arresting agency to handle transportation to and from hearings and justice centers, Crossroads police officers and deputies could be tied up, he said.

"You could pick a kid up on Saturday night and have to drive them to Hays County. Monday morning, somebody is going back to get that kid and bringing them back here for a detention hearing and then taking them back to Hays County," he said.

But most importantly, Arnecke said, housing Crossroads juveniles in the Crossroads makes their rehabilitation healthier and easier.

"Their parents don't have to drive very far to see them ... A big part of rehabilitation is involvement with the family," he said.



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