County poised to outsource Sierra Youth Center
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 11:06 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 11:06 a.m.
Sonoma County is set to turn over its residential probation program for teenage girls to a private operator, the latest county service to be outsourced to the private sector in an effort to save money.
The shift, scheduled to go before the Board of Supervisors today, is designed to provide a similar level of supervision and help for the troubled teenagers, but at lower cost to taxpayers, county officials said.
It follows decisions in recent years to turn over other county services, including alcohol and drug treatment and management of five county-owned veterans buildings, to private companies or nonprofits.
Another decision coming next month could extend private operation of the county landfill -- now covered by an interim 2-year-old contract -- for as long as 30 years.
Today's board vote likely marks the end for the Sierra Youth Center, the county's 34-year-old probation camp for girls, tucked into a corner of the juvenile justice campus off Highway 12 in the Valley of the Moon.
Since its inception, the center has used gardening projects, a Girl Scout troop, job training, art workshops, and even yoga classes to provide round-the-clock, court-ordered supervision to hundreds of teenage girls. Many of its residents have multiple arrests for drug and gang activity, theft and other crimes.
But preparations are under way for the center to close Thursday, after three remaining girls return to outside homes. No layoffs are expected from the closure.
County supervisors authorized the turnover last year, citing probation reports that showed a declining population at Sierra -- which was equipped to handle 15 girls but was down to eight at the time -- and its high fixed costs, at about $1.6 million a year.
The county cost for the new program, to be run nearby on the juvenile justice campus by Crossroads Treatment Centers, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group home operator, is slated to be about a third to half that amount.
The savings, plus the drop in the number of girls, justified the switch, said Bob Ochs, the county's chief probation officer, who has advanced the proposal under fire from Sierra supporters.
He said a new set of career classes could give an extra boost to girls in the new program, which is due to open in March.
"I think we have great potential," he said.
Critics who came forward last year to oppose Sierra's closure, including some youth advocates, have either expressed tentative support for the change or said they would withhold their judgement for now.
"If it develops the way it's been proposed, it could provide some services that the girls at Sierra have not had," said Caroline Keller, a retired school administrator and Oakmont resident who has served on an advisory committee for the youth center.
"How it actually plays out, it's too soon to know," she added.
The center's fate had been hotly disputed in budget hearings since 2010. Supervisors defended their decision in June to close the facility, touting the switch to a private operator as the best way to maintain a program within tighter budgets.
Labor leaders criticized the move and have taken aim at the outsourcing trend, citing risks they say it poses for public services, as well as its effect on the workforce. Private employers offer lower salaries and less benefits for jobs with similar levels of training, they contend.
Crossroads, the Sacramento nonprofit selected for the new program, operates eight group homes, plus school and foster services.
It will be based out of a collection of five buildings and homes it will lease from the county for about $43,000 a year.
County costs for the program, drawn from probation and human services budgets, range from about $500,000 year with a population of five girls to about $800,000 for 10 girls. The program would be limited to 18 girls, including girls drawn from other counties, Ochs said.
Advocates have pushed for a broader set of career courses under the new program, similar to the vocational training offered at the county's probation camp for boys, which has a larger population and is set to continue.
Currently, the probation department has committed about $65,000 a year to pay for two classes, offered through the Sonoma County Office of Education. One would cover administrative and business services and the other would teach work in the food service industry. If demand arises and funds are authorized, probation officials said they may open up other coursework in the building trades.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who was vocal last year in calling for equal training programs for girls, said last week that she intends to push for the additional classes in the trades, including woodworking, carpentry and welding.
Such skills can command better paying jobs to get girls in the program, many of whom are already single mothers, back on their feet, Zane said.
"Let's talk about parity," she said. "I'm not seeing it at this point."
Sierra's 10 employees, including seven correctional counselors, a supervisor, a secretary and a director, are being transferred to operations at the nearby juvenile hall.
Maria Lopez, the center's director, was busy Monday tending to the three remaining girls at the center, preparing them for their departure by Wednesday.
"They are a little nervous, a little scared, which is normal after seven to eight months of being here," Lopez said.
The staff had a similar mix of emotions, she said.
"There's a part of them that's sad because this program is closing after so many years," she said. "But they're also eager to start their new adventure."
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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