Time is running out to decide the future of the Elkhart County Juvenile Detention Center.
That’s according to some local leaders, including Mike Yoder, county commissioner.
“We are rapidly approaching a time where it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to pass state inspections,” Yoder said recently.
He and fellow commissioners Terry Rodino and Frank Lucchese announced in May that building funds for a new juvenile detention center was one of their top fiscal policy goals for 2015.
If they’re succesful, the future of the facility still ultimately lies in the hands of the Elkhart County Council.
“A waste of taxpayers’ dollars”
The current juvenile detention center takes up just 12,000 square feet of the 117,000-square-foot former jail on 114 N. Second St., Goshen, according to Tom Byers, county administrator.
That means almost 90 percent of the building is unused but contributing to the yearly utility bill, which averages about $133,187 for electricity, water and gas, according to Byers.
There are also numerous maintenance problems, including a leaky roof, aging fixtures, issues with the hot water heater and painting needs, Byers said.
”In my opinion, it’s a waste of taxpayers’ dollars keeping the thing going as it is now,” Yoder said. “There really is no choice.”
In addition to juvenile offenders, the building formerly housed adult inmates and the sheriff’s department headquarters, but those operations were moved to the new Elkhart County Corrections Center in 2010.
“They deserve better”
In 2010, Deborah Domine, magistrate for the juvenile court, said the construction of a new juvenile detention facility was long overdue, and it should have taken priority over the construction of the sheriff’s department headquarters at the new jail.
Four years later, she’s still concerned.
“We’ve been talking about this for the past 11 years, and it always gets put on the back burner — and for good reason. Sources are limited,” she said.
But these kids are going to impact the community in one way or another, and they can’t be in a substandard facility, she said.
“I’m not saying that the facility they’re in now is substandard, but it’s getting more and more difficult to maintain the older the building gets, and they deserve better, and we deserve better,” Domine said.
She praised the programming that’s in place at the center. The kids are able to keep up with school in the computer lab, and there’s a special education teacher on staff who has the skills to address learning disabilities and help them earn their GEDs, she said.
“I want to see a facility that can maintain our good programming,” Domine said.
An inside perspective
Susan Mora, facility director, spends her days in close quarters with the children, who stay an average of 16 days. The facility’s maximum capacity is 17 juveniles at a time.
“I know that occasionally we have a bucket in the classroom,” she said, referring to a leaky roof that’s been difficult to repair.
But unlike Yoder, she doesn’t feel that the facility is close to being shut down.
“Our showers are older, our toilet and sink units are older, and maintenance probably gets very tired of us,” she said. “But (getting shut down) is not really a concern.”
A 2013 inspection by the Indiana Department of Corrections found that the facility was 100 percent compliant of mandatory standards and 98.16 percent compliant with non-mandatory standards.
Still, Mora worries about what could happen if a new facility is never built and the county has to send juvenile delinquents elsewhere, like St. Joseph County, which has been proposed as an alternative in the past.
“Probably the biggest concern is that you lose control as a county of what kind of services the children are being offered at other facilities because you don’t have direct contact,” she said.
The funding question
Right now, there are too many variables to come up with a projected cost, Byers said. In past years, estimates for a new facility have ranged between $2 million and $10 million.
Whatever the price tag, the commissioners hope to pay for a new facility by building reserves in the Jail County Adjusted Gross Income Tax (CAGIT) fund, which, in recent years, has been used to fund day-to-day jail operations, Yoder said.
Ideally, jail operations would be funded from the general fund, allowing the jail CAGIT to accumulate dollars for bigger projects.
Yoder said the project’s fate lies in whether or not the county council decides to implement a Local Option Income Tax (LOIT).
“If we do not pass an additional LOIT, we will have to pull money out of the jail CAGIT again next year, so we’ll make no progress,” Yoder said.
The council will make that decision later this year, but even if they implement a LOIT, they’ll still have the final say on whether or not the county gets a new juvenile detention center.
$7.7 million shortfall?
The last time the commissioners seriously planned for a new facility was in 2010, and they were shot down by the council, largely for budgetary reasons.
John Letherman, president of the Elkhart County Council, said recently that the current facility’s set-up is “certainly not a good arrangement.”
“But when you step back and look at the whole system, you begin to wonder how much you’re going to spend on 15 to 30 juveniles at any one time when we’ve got shortfalls in so many other areas,” he said.
In March, Pauline Graff, county auditor, estimated up to a $7.7 million shortfall in the 2015 county budget, though official numbers won’t be ready until later this year.
About $1 million of that estimate is attributed to the commissioners’ goal of building up CAGIT reserves, according to a list distributed at the county government summit in May.
Right now, Letherman doesn’t think the county can commit to any new projects until leaders can figure out how to balance the budget with the resources that are currently available.
He noted that hundreds of county employees haven’t had much of a raise in the past five years.
“I’d like to do something, but I don’t think we can,” Letherman said.
The Elkhart Truth will continue following this story as budget season approaches.